Stricter rules that will
decide whether finished
cattle can be sold under a
farm assured label come
into effect in April this
year, forcing more producers
into assurance schemes.
Simon Wragg reports
IN LATE January, Assured British Meat (ABM) announced its new beef and lamb farm standards in the latest bout of regulation designed to get a continuous chain of farm assurance for all livestock from birth to slaughter.
The new standards, that will become embodied in the revamped Farm Assured British Beef & Lamb (FABBL) code from Apr 1 this year has many facets covering management, feeding, transport and the environment.
The fundamental change is a requirement that all beef animals sold from a FABBL members holding after Mar 1, 2003 will have to have been kept on farm assured units for at least 180 days before slaughter.
The move doubles the existing rule for a 90-day residency period before slaughter to qualify for assured status.
Until now, the 90-day ruling has presented few problems for finishers. Apart from those buying forward stores – cattle close to their prime condition for slaughter – most feeding cattle remain on finishers assured holdings for longer than the original stipulation.
But a 180-day rule, effectively six months, presents a very different argument, say finishers.
However unpalatable, the initial rules were bound to change, argues Robert Robinson, chairman of the National Beef Association, which itself is a stakeholder in FABBL. "Its not terribly credible to say youve got to be kind to a beast for 90 days to qualify it for farm assured status.
"If we look at the equivalent Scottish scheme, assured means from birth to slaughter. Store producers in the north of England selling cattle to finishers across the border have had to have FABBL registration to complete that chain. The new standard takes producers in England and Wales a step closer towards that," he says.
But it is a step some producers will resent. The uptake of FABBL registration – currently costing an initial £85 and £75/annum thereafter – has been resisted by producers of store cattle able to market stock on their quality, rather than a farm assured ticket.
Willie Woodman, who farms cattle and sheep alongside Hadrians Wall at Great Chesters, near Haltwhistle, Northumberland, is typical of those who have declined FABBL registration in the past.
"Just because were not farm assured doesnt mean were not good farmers," he says emphatically. His words suggest the way assurance schemes have been imposed on producers has already left deep scars.
Running just over 500 cattle as his business restocks after foot-and-mouth, Mr Woodman encapsulates the objections commonly cited by non-members against assurance schemes; cost, imposed regulation and paperwork.
Stores from Great Chesters, sold through Hexham market as yearlings, have attracted strong prices in the past reflecting their quality. Many go to finishers who retain the young cattle for longer than the FABBL 90-day residency to qualify as farm assured and, therefore, do not penalise unregistered suppliers.
The lack of price differentiation between assured and non-assured store cattle has not helped win the FABBL argument, admits Hexham-based auctioneer Scott Donaldson. "Good store stock will always sell whether it has a farm assurance ticket or not; thats the way many see it.
"It also has to be remembered that many store producers will also be selling prime sheep and dont see any price difference in the returns for non-assured stock. Theres no incentive until you get close to selling cattle fit for slaughter."
With more multiple retailers joining the farm assured bandwagon – Morrisons recently announced its requirement for suppliers to adhere to the 90-day farm assurance rule – finishers see the need for more store producers to sign up.
Robin Hughes, manager of North Yorks-based Birdsall Beef Company that finishes about 5000 cattle annually, says without registration, older store cattle could lose out in the auction ring. "If theres no farm assured ticket then therell be no incentive for finishers supplying the big retail abattoirs, that demand farm assured stock to buy forward stores at all.
"The new rule is an added headache. We struggle to keep some forward stores two months let alone 180 days. Its only the likes of heifers that well keep over a winter and put through a store period, or steers that were holding for a second subsidy claim that would qualify in future," he explains.
"It seems were heading for assurance from birth to slaughter whether we like it or not. It will present problems for some hill men without a doubt; money is already tight enough.
"Ideally, wed like more stores to be assured, but I think its down to FABBL to get out on to farms and show what needs to be done if theyre to win support. Its no good sending out the booklets – I doubt that will win the argument."
Already, the work of persuading non-members has started. FABBL announced in mid-February it is to embark on a recruitment campaign. Accord-ing to Mr Robinson there could be scope to offer incentives to smaller producers who co-operate. For example, where inspections on adjacent holdings can be synchronised, costs could be scaled back, he suggests.
Although consultation on easing the passage for some producers is likely to continue, many feel they are pressured in to joining.
Mr Woodman believes the rule change effectively leaves his business little choice but to sign up. "Talking to buyers, more say they want assured stock. The scheme itself looks straight enough, but the paperwork will not be welcome.
"FABBL needs to remember were here to farm; if I wanted work filling in forms Id have got a job in an office," he says. *
Store cattle producer Willie Woodman believes he has little choice but to sign up to farm assurance.
• 180-day residency to qualify.
• Opposition from store producers.
• Finishers will seek farm assured stock.