28 August 1998

Focus on finishing while stock prices remain low

Depressed store cattle and

cull ewe prices have led the

partners to reassess their

management policies.

Robert Davies reports

WE are not prepared to go on seeing excellent quality store cattle knocked down for ridiculously low prices, says Margaret Dalton. "For the first time ever we have picked the best 35 stores to finish over winter."

Confirmation that they had made the right decision came when they recently sold three "very nice" stores. Two heifers averaged 70p/kg and a 440kg steer realised 86p/kg. When Mrs Dalton recorded the figures in her daybook she added the footnote: "Very, very disappointing."

"We still have to sell about 35 stores before housing time so we will watch market prices and enter a batch when returns look reasonable. Every animal will be weighed and I will set a minimum acceptable price/kg," she says.

The other stores will be housed from late September on silage, vegetable waste from a local organic packing factory, and crushed whole barley. The Daltons have 10t in store, including 5t of this seasons harvest bought though a local merchant for £72/t delivered. Limited storage space means more barley will be bought as required.

"When cereals are so cheap it must be possible to improve the cattle enterprise margin by finishing our own stores rather than almost giving them away," suggests John Dalton.

"We have no experience of the job, but expect some of the heifers to go off very quickly and the steers to be ready from November."

The calving season continues to be one of the worst the Daltons can remember for calf deaths. In the last month a three- week- old was found dead. Samples sent for investigation did not reveal the cause.

Probably the biggest calf Mrs Dalton had ever seen died despite being delivered by caesarean section. The Welsh Black cow has recovered but has barely enough milk to feed the Hereford cross heifer bought in for £32 to suckle her.

A brief dry spell allowed the partners to make 2ha (5 acres) of excellent hay and to take second cut silage from 30ha (75 acres). This was far better quality than the bulk of first cut material, which will be fed to dry cows.

Mr Dalton estimates that the farm probably has enough fodder for the winter and, more importantly, enough superior quality hay and silage for the ewes. However, he still expects to contract harvest around 80ha (200 acres) for other farmers. Many of these are new clients attracted by the news that he had hired a larger capacity self-propelled harvester.

In fact he has replaced that machine with a six-year-old 380hp Claas 695. The part-exchange deal on his own old machine cost the business £25,000, but the replacement has done only 1450 hours.

"Competition is tough but with the new harvester, the rake I bought this season, and three refurbished trailers, I will be able to offer a very competitive complete package next year."

While the sewage sludge contract is ticking over reasonably well, Mr Dalton is very conscious that the injection of raw sewage is to end. He is already involved in a trial of spreading semi-solid material that has been sterilised by the addition of quick lime.

He is looking at the cost of tooling up to handle large quantities of lime-treated bio-solids.

The wet season means there is plenty of grass on the farm, but lambs are not finishing well. Only 75 out of 600 have been sold, and a significant number of these have not classified well on the hook.

Mrs Dalton says: "I have never knows a season like it. The lambs look good in the field, but are not expressing their true conformation potential. Some people are feeding to get the right level of finish but I cannot see how the low lamb prices justify this."

Because of the awful cull ewe trade, the Daltons have decided to keep on 20 of 40 old ewes they selected for slaughter. These have sound bags and feet and will be tupped on Sept 1 to produce early Suffolk cross lambs.

A sheep annual premium cheque for £4386 has kept the bank manager at bay. Controlling the overdrafts of both businesses should be easier now that they have switched to the Midland Banks Hexagon on-line service, which supplies daily projected end-of-day balances and cuts the cost of each cheque from 76p to 41p.

While accounts are within overdraft limits large receipts are being deposited in interest-earning accounts. The daily balances allow transfers to be made from these as late as possible. &#42

A late arrival… Margaret Dalton checks a lamb born at the end of July. The most sound old ewes are being retained as cull prices are averaging £11/head.

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 125ha (310-acre) less favoured area beef and sheep unit in mid-Wales farmed by Margaret Dalton and her son John, who also operates contracting services.

&#8226 Managed in association with an ADAS full-farm advisory package.

&#8226 Quota for 435 ewes. Scotch Mules are put to Rouge tups and the female progeny used to produce Texel sired prime lambs.

&#8226 Quota for 85 sucklers, Hereford x Friesians, Welsh Blacks and Longhorn x Welsh Blacks, used to breed Charolais cross stores.

&#8226 Small poultry enterprise.

&#8226 One full-time stockman, and variable number of full and part-time contracting staff.