4 September 1998

Dairy cow price warning issued

By Tim Relf

DAIRY cow prices could weaken this autumn, as big numbers hit the market, farmers are being warned.

"Im hoping for the best, but prepare for the worst," says Chris Norton of auctioneers Norton & Brooksbank. He says the "buzz" is missing from the trade.

"You can sell cows but people arent prepared to pay much for them," he adds. "Buyers are taking the view that, if they cant get them at the right price today, therell be others on offer tomorrow."

Long-term, however, supplies could tighten, with farmers likely to make more use of beef bulls after the demise of the calf slaughter scheme.

While the market could be over-supplied this autumn, there will not be the mass exodus of farmers from the industry that some are predicting, says Mr Norton. "Therell be no vast stampede to get out."

Best cattle will continue to sell well, but they have to be good all-round, he adds. "That means, pedigree, type and production."

Clive Norbury, of Wright-Manley, predicts that, in the commercial sector, ordinary cows will be worth £300-£500, while the better end could be worth around £900.

Older cows, spring calvers and anything with cell count problems are hard to shift. "People want decent cows that are fresh and giving a lot of milk," says Mr Norbury.

Demand is coming from farmers who plan to stay in the industry and remain competitive by increasing output. "But how much money is available to go on investing in cows?" asks Mr Norbury. He says there is not a lot of cohort money left as it has already gone on new stock, equipment and to reduce borrowings.

David Giles, of Halls, says while cull cow values are low, the differential between this and the replacement price is much the same as ever.

"Now could be a good opportunity for dairymen to go out and get better-quality cattle than they have had before," he says.

Mr Giles adds that average commercial heifers are at £600-£700, with the best just topping £800. "Theyre not getting into four figures."

He says that trade in the weekly market remains patchy. "We have our good weeks – but we also have our bad weeks."

At Frome market in Somerset, top price in the dairystock section last Wednesday was £815, which was taken twice.

"Buyers can afford to be selective," says auctioneer David Millard. Hes seen buyers travel greater distances than before to dispersals, lured by the prospect of affordable, top-notch animals.

He thinks now is a good time to upgrade. "If you can buy a nice cow for £700, whats the point in buying third-quality?"

Barry Colton, of Kittows at Hallworthy, Cornwall, says: "There is no shortage of customers – but the urgency has gone out of the bidding." He adds that decent commercial heifers are making anything from £550 to £1000.

The old stock is taking a hammering, moving further back towards the "burning" price of the over 30-month scheme. Mr Colton says that demand for such animals is less in the autumn than in the spring. &#42

Prices at dairy sales this autumn could be well down on previous years.