17 September 1999
Damage limitation for hill farmers

By James Garner

HILL farmers can take action to help offset their low farm incomes which have plummeted to an average of £5300 in England and less in Wales.

The crisis is horrendous, according to Tony Waterhouse, head of the hill and mountain research centre at the Scottish Agricultural College, Crianlarich, Perth.

“But there are some small things that can be done,” he said.

“They wont solve the crisis, because that is down to market values, but tinkering around the edges will help in the short and medium term.”

He urges producers to review their businesses to get through winter. In the short term there are two areas to look at — vet and medicine use and winter feed costs.

Medicine use must be cut-back wisely, and in consultation with your vet, but producers are not always using the most cost effective treatments, he said.

“For example, some vet products may be used too frequently, such as liver fluke treatments. Producers continue using these almost out of habit.”

This winters feeding policy can bear scrutiny, said Ron Duncan, senior agricultural adviser at the Inverness Scottish Agricultural College.

“Analyse your winter forage so a least cost ration can be produced to meet stock requirements as economically as possible.”

John Vipond, Scottish Agricultural College sheep specialist, said many producers should make good use of the reasonable quality of hay made this summer.

Feed costs can also be cut by buying compound in 1t totes, rather than bags, or bulk where possible, said Dr Waterhouse.

“Feeding straights is an option. This can reduce costs without cutting inputs and affecting sheep welfare or productivity.”

Dr Vipond also said it is vital to work out what it costs to produce a lamb.

“When you end up selling lambs for less than the cost of production ask whether you should continue to do this.

“It may be sensible to pick out your best ewes now and put only them to the tup, which will improve next years ewe lamb quality.”

But be careful not to penalise flock lambing performance so much that you lose HLCA payments, he added.

At tupping, keeping tups in for only 32 days, instead of six weeks, will shorten lambing time and only have a small effect on the number of lambs born, said Dr Waterhouse. “It will also reduce the number of small tail-end lambs born.”

And, contrary to recent trends, Dr Waterhouse said hill producers should consider running good old ewes for another year, for up to five crops. Reducing flock replacements by up to 10% as a result will save away wintering and flock replacement costs.

“Producers will pay £15 a head to keep a ewe lamb or gimmer for a year, but less than that for a ewe producing lambs.”

Cutting flock numbers may also mean your flock size matches quota. “It is amazing how many producers have not claimed for ewe lambs.

When there is quota for 1000 ewes, producers have kept 1000, but it might be better to come down to 900 or 925 ewes and claim headage payment on ewe lambs.

“This will reduce flock size and number of lambs born,” he said.

Dr Waterhouse said producers on better hill or fenced land may be able to mate some hill ewes to terminal sires.

And although this will improve lamb quality, Dr Vipond warned that these ewes must receive supplementary feed to ensure they can carry a cross bred lamb.

“Crossbred lambs need more milk and ewes will need to be in better condition at lambing.”

As part of a medium term strategy, producers need to simplify systems to free-up time, said Dr Waterhouse.

“Streamline your system, which may mean some capital investment in, for example, better handling facilities.”

“Freeing-up time means it can be used elsewhere, whether that is off-farm employment or cutting down the amount of work the contractor does.”

Expansion could be an answer for some, said Mr Duncan.

“It will mean capital investment, but preparing a budget will show whether this is appropriate.”

Moving from sheep to cattle production, however, will be impossible for many because of the capital required to begin with, said Dr Waterhouse.

“But analyse all options,” he added. “Look at diversifying into something that suits your situation, whether this is tourism or agri-environment schemes.”