18 June 1999

Spot-on production and marketing key to profit

The sun shone on almost

2000 farmers who attended

Welsh Sheep 99, but there

was no mistaking the

industrys underlying gloom.

Robert Davies reports

WELSH sheep producers must not only market their lamb effectively, but also improve production and control costs, visitors at last weeks Welsh Sheep event were told.

The 140 trade stands attempting to attract some of flockmasters limited funds were busy, but traders reported that most people were keeping their cheque books in their pockets.

Even though the earliest big breeding stock sales are still some months away, some of the hardest selling was on breed society stands, especially those representing half-bred ewe breeders who saw their prices crash by £15 a head last autumn. Nobody was willing to make public forecasts about next back end, but few denied privately that it would be hard to recover lost ground.

The message from consultants was to concentrate on improving production efficiency, marketing and quality, especially controlling costs and finding the right market for the type of lamb a farm could produce.

John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, cited economic, political, environmental and welfare pressures. On one hand producers faced pressure to provide more safeguards for consumers, and on the other to reduce prices.

This could result in the ultimate destruction of confidence and succeed only in returning the now beautifully cared for hills and uplands to unmanageable wilderness. But Welsh lamb was synonymous with good quality, healthy, tasty meat, and Welsh breeding stock thrived and contributed to production in many parts of Europe and beyond.

Opening the NSA organised event at Penbedw, Mold, Clwyd, Mr Thorley insisted that the UK sheep industrys economic viability held together fragile rural economies and sustained rural communities. Irrespective of the machinations of big businesses driven by the profit and domination ethic, he believed sheep production would survive and continue to provide meat, clothing and fertility.

"Let there be no doubt that more people want natural product. We have got it, more people are interested in the environment, we husband it and more people want sustainable agriculture. We are its foundation."

Mr Thorley said family run sheep farms were the backbone of UK agriculture. They had endured hardship and privation. Fierce pride of accomplishment, pride of ownership and sheer bloody mindedness had allowed them to succeed. Without them, farming in remote rural areas faced a bleak future.

He warned politicians responsible for future world trade talks that giving in to the bully boys of the US, so that position of British livestock farms was weakened, would devastate the rural infrastructure, communities and culture.

There was also a risk that new rules would drive small abattoirs out of business forcing animals to travel long distances for slaughter at a small number of large plants supplying a few supermarket giants.

Getting harder to make cash from beef

CATTLE are considered to be essential for balanced grazing management on the farm that hosted Welsh Sheep 99.

But the Archdale family acknowledge that achieving a reasonable margin is difficult and getting even harder.

Until 10 years ago, 230 suckler cows were run at Penbedw near Mold, Clwyd, now there are just 30 spring calvers. The change came when the accounts were computerised and it became clear that cows were being kept for their company rather than for the income they generated.

The partners decided that they must play the system to optimise returns while still benefiting from mixed grazing. That means finishing only 90 male cattle a year on which Beef Special Premium can be claimed, and going for extensification payments. To maximise returns they also try to contain production costs and to market high quality bullocks that command price premiums. More recently they have also avoided a market penalty of about £50 a head by being able to pen Farm Assured bullocks. The next step could be to buy an Aberdeen Angus bull and join an Angus quality beef scheme.

The present system involves buying 290kg mainly Limousin cross suckled calves in Perthshire to top up the number of home bred steers to a total of 90.

They buy in Scotland as a way of thanking farmers who travel to buy at the local Welsh Halfbred Sheep Association sale each year. The trip north also provides them with a choice of around 3000 spring born calves at one sale.

Calves arrive in November and are wintered on grass silage and straw. Growth rate is about 0.6kg a day, which means that there is considerable compensatory growth after turnout in March. During the summer they are used to balance pasture growth and ensure swards are at the right height for sheep.

A small amount of concentrate is fed before housing in October, after which cattle are finished at about 630kg on ad-lib maize silage. Purchased cattle spend between 14 and 18 months on the farm. They and homebred steers are sold on the hoof at St Asaph Market, where competition between butchers who like maize silage fed cattle can generate a price premium.

"I love having cattle on the farm, but even though we try to be as efficient as possible, there would be no margin without the extensification payment," said Edward Archdale.

His father, Nick, who started farming in 1947, said it had never been harder to make money out of beef. He is convinced that producers must go for quality, possibly using extensively managed native beef breeds, but he is concerned about being able to finish such animals in under 30 months at weights that will leave a reasonable margin. &#42

Plenty of interest but no real action. There were keen crowds of producers at demonstrations of a scanner that can pick finished lambs in ideal slaughter condition. But the contractors offering the mobile service reported little serious interest.