19 November 1999

Killer punches for uplands

Subsidy reform is causing

concern in upland areas and

one Shrops beef and sheep

producer thinks he may be

worse off. James Garner

reports

A SERIES of knockout blows are being dealt in the uplands. The first is changes to extensification claims; the second killer punch is proposed changes to less favoured areas.

Depressing though this is, it is the firm view of once vet, now farmer Chris Blackman, who is also Shropshire and Herefords NFU delegate for LFAs.

The results of both policies will be an increasing exodus from family farms in upland areas. This will have tragic results for the environment in which he farms, he says.

Upland farms, in Mr Blackmans view, need more environmental management than hill farms. "It is a managed landscape. It may not be the publics perception that it is managed, but it is, and that is the landscape the public wants to remain."

By encouraging more extensive livestock production, which will happen under extensification reform, the landscape in these areas will be managed less and will not retain the qualities that everyone wants to protect, he says.

Subsidies

There is little that can be done about extensification subsidy payments as they are soon to be introduced under Agenda 2000 reform. But what worries Mr Blackman more is that some press reports have portrayed rule changes as a good thing.

"A big estate featured in the press was able to claim more money under new rules and yet not have to change stocking rates or farm management. The only way this is possible is because of the amount of land it had available."

Mr Blackman is quick to add that in the big estates position he would do the same. But he feels the new rules will disadvantage smaller livestock farms that are trying to carry as much stock as possible.

"I think European policy is determined to finish extensive grassland beef farming in favour of intensive Continental style beef production.

"Subsidies are important, I dont farm for them, but we are completely dependent on support in this region."

He believes producers will have to change their practices to obtain the most support which may not be to their benefit.

On his 91ha (225 acre) all grass unit at Burfield Farm, Clun, Craven Arms, Shrops, Mr Blackman keeps 15 pedigree Blonde DAquitaines, 55 commercial suckler cows, 300 Welsh Mule ewes with some Beulah Speckled Face to breed replacements and 50 hoggs. Everything is sold through the local mart. Lambs are finished and sold in summer and autumn. All steers and heifers are sold as stores.

One of the proposed changes which Mr Blackman thinks will cause upland producers problems is that all beef animals over six months have to be included in extensification claims.

"My farm is reasonably well stocked, but presently I can claim extensification premium at 1.4 livestock units a hectare on the animals I make subsidy claims for.

"However, under the new rules my average stocking rate would be 1.7LSU/ha which puts me above the ceiling after 2002 for the top tier of payments. I would have to change policy to ensure I stay in pocket," says Mr Blackman.

Policy changes are already under way at Burfield Farm. Currently most of his beef herd is autumn calving, but this is going to change. "I will keep a tight autumn bulling period. Anything that slips will go into the spring herd which is currently small."

By moving more of the herd to spring calving and then selling heifers off cows in October, heifers will not be on farm long enough to interfere with extensification claims. Steers will be on farm for one BSP claim, but overall, youngstock on the holding will be kept to a minimum.

This adjustment should reduce Mr Blackmans actual stocking rate from 1.7LSU/ha to below 1.6LSU/ha, so he can claim the top tier of payments for extensification.

But what worries him is that many producers will not be able to achieve a stocking rate of under 1.6LSU/ha without cutting stock numbers. "You have to reduce cow numbers by a fair bit to make 0.1LSU/ha difference to your calculation.

"Cutting stock numbers is bad news for smaller farms that can carry a reasonable number of stock. For most of them it may not be the most sensible or profitable option.

"But the real crunch will come in two years time. By the time farms have come to terms with stocking at 1.6LSU/ha they will then be faced with another drop to 1.4LSU/ha to claim the higher tier of payments."

For Mr Blackman this may be one drop too far. "By then Ill be nearly 58, so I will be ready to cut stock numbers and accept the payments. But from a profit perspective I would be better off keeping my cattle at the most productive number on my land."

EXTENSIFICATION

&#8226 Encourage extensive production.

&#8226 Cut stock numbers.

&#8226 Is this more profitable?