14 April 2000

Fine run of cull ewe sales eases

By Simon Wragg

AFTER a good run of cull ewe sales, averages have pulled back slightly and auctioneers expect values to relax gradually as the end of the sheep annual premium retention period approaches.

Latest weekly averages released by the Meat and Livestock Commission show a slight fall for both light and heavy cull ewes judged by breed. Over the past week lighter sorts were down £2.50 to £29.50/head. Heavies were close behind recording a £2.23/head drop.

The end of religious festivals on the continent may have contributed to a fluctuation in the weekly export figures, but the market remains open to a number of other external influences, not least changes in the value of sterling, observes MLC economist Lesley Green.

The fall has not gone unnoticed in Scotland. At Thainstone, auctioneers saw averages back at £30/head (down £1 on the week). "Some of this will be down to the run of high prices attracting producers to send in poorer ewes and those which have lost lambs," comments a spokesman.

Further drops are likely. According to United Auctions Stirling-based Willie Paterson a £4/ewe downturn is a sure sign moves are afoot in the markets. "The retention period ends on May 15, but I get the impression many farms are holding younger ewes in retention this year; a couple of busy weeks after then and the cull trade will be all but done," he adds.

Pressure on northern marts could mount with the import of cull ewes from Ireland. Its retention period ends on April 28 and meatier culls are now worth £1/kg deadweight, significantly less than mainland supplies. That leaves sufficient margin to cover transport costs to Scottish marts, say auctioneers.

Further south, numbers forward are still strong. At Melton Mowbray auctioneer David Willars saw 1480 sell in poor weather last week to a fast trade. Ewes fell almost £3 a head on the week, but the best were still hitting over £1/kg. Pressure from imports and wholesaler resistance to continue paying high prices are to blame, he suggests.

Its a marked change to October when ewes were being turned away with producers getting little or no return. Although lowland producers could afford to keep feeding some ewes, hill men were facing shortages of feed stocks or space to carry over surplus culls.

Some fattening men have done well. "Ewes bought in November at £3 a head are now selling £27.50 each leaving a good margin for feed costs," adds Mr Paterson. &#42