8 June 2001

Double dose of optimism

Quiet optimism on stock and crop fronts has been aided by a

spell of good growing weather at Tirinie. Allan Wright reports

CATTLE prices are holding up well north of the Forth/Clyde line. The area – designated provisionally free of foot-and-mouth disease – has seen R4L beef bulls go for 174p/kg – 10p/kg better than this time last year.

This is good news for Ian Duncan Millar, who has a batch ready to market. "Weve sold a couple of heifers. One made 176p compared with 164p for the same grade last year. Being in an F&M-free area and the slight scarcity of finished cattle has helped, and I see no reason to be despondent about beef price prospects."

Refusing to have the lamb trade talked down, he points to innovative work being done by Quality Meat Scotland to promote new product lines for light lamb carcasses that would have been exported in normal times.

"The lack of export markets, which normally took about half the stock, will mean light lambs overhanging the market despite the numbers lost to F&M," he says. "We are working through QMS to find new outlets for those lambs and we must not allow the trade to talk down prices for the normal home trade in 16-20kg lambs."

Mr Duncan Millars own bit of self-help has been to sow 4ha (10 acres) of kale to supplement 5.2ha (13 acres) of turnips to finish organic Blackface lambs from Wester Tullich (one of two hill units that he manages) over next winter.

"These lambs can grow to a home-market weight of around 16kg if we keep them going on good feed," he says. The lambs will also have a better start at Wester Tullich, where an investment of about £40/ha (£100/acre) on lime, phosphate, potash and clover seed has improved the sward and should boost lamb weaning weights.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of grass to grow the stock at Tirinie. Apart from the indoor bull beef, all the cattle were turned out by mid-May as normal and the silage harvest began on schedule this week. "In late April, when there was no sign of grass, I would not have thought it possible," says Mr Duncan Millar. "Nature has wonderful recovery powers, especially if the farmer is there to help."

This cautious optimism extends to the spring barley fields. Traditional variety Chariot has tillered particularly well. Newcomer Chalice is more open at the moment, but Decanter (grown for seed) is pleasing the grower. All the crops are disease-free, although a spray may be needed later in the season.

"My crops are for seed or malting," says Mr Duncan Millar. "Im reasonably sure that most of the extra spring barley planted this year because winter wheat and barley were lost to the autumn weather is on land unsuited to malting barley. It could have a depressing effect on feed prices but not on the malting premium and I havent adjusted my budgets." He recently had feed barley delivered at £80/t.

Although Tirinie is a long way from the F&M infected area of Scotland, the disease and its aftermath affect the whole country. Mr Duncan Millar welcomes the licensing and disinfection of shearers as a sensible discipline in the fight against sheep scab and CLA (lumpy jaw) as well as the more obvious disease.

He also accepts that tighter control and fewer animal movements, together with improved traceability of animals traded at marts outside the sale rings, is right and proper on both health and welfare grounds.

"We cant have animals traded seven times in 10 days. However, the 20-day isolation plan is something devised by people short on the practicalities of farming. Its unworkable in its present form and I cant help feeling that a lot could be done by proper enforcement of existing import regulations and sheep identification rules without the introduction of draconian measures like the 20-day rule."

Being ever-conscious of the threat of F&M, Mr Duncan Millar recently turned down a request from a group of Duke of Edinburgh Award trainees from Cumbria to walk from the Sma Glen to Loch Tay, camping en route on the high hill farm of Auchnafree, the other unit he manages. "I cant risk visitors from a centre of the disease," he says.

The Auchnafree lambing was completed in perfect weather that has also been kind, so far, to grouse chicks. Both are needed to make a high hill farm viable – and inviting.

"I was on a hill unit recently where there were no sheep or cattle and it was depressing in the extreme," says Mr Duncan Millar. "It was overgrown with heather; there was no wildlife, no birds, nothing – not even any life around two small lochs.

"That is what could happen to a lot of Scotland if enough care is not taken with the aftermath of foot-and-mouth and the reform of the EU sheep regime." &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 Tirinie, a 129ha (318 acre) mixed arable and stock farm in north-west Perthshire, farmed by Ian Duncan Millar. It has been in the family for 40 years.

&#8226 The land is a mix of sandy loam over gravel near the rivers Tay and Lyon, and medium loam away from rivers.

&#8226 Main arable crop is spring barley for malting and seed contracts. Turnips grown for wintering sheep.

&#8226 Sheep flock of 300 Mule and Texel cross ewes. Lambs are finished and sold through a local lamb marketing group.

&#8226 Suckled calves bought privately from one farm. Males finished intensively, best heifer calves kept for breeding and sold with calves at foot.

&#8226 Farm staff of one, for tractor work.

New outlets for lambs could help shore up prices, despite a lack of exports, says Ian Duncan Millar.