4 September 1998

Limited forage leads to over-wintering concern

By Simon Wragg

CONTINUAL rain has led to poor winter forage prospects across much of the north of Britain, and its certainly the case on one Northumberland hill farm.

William and Christine Woodman, who farm 450ha (1100ac) of mainly rough grazing at Great Chesters, Haltwhistle, are already planning which stock can be housed – some task with 160 autumn calving cows, 65 spring calvers, 200 suckled calves and 630 Blackface ewes and any unfinished lambs requiring space.

Limited forage is a prime concern, but that is compounded by worries about markets for store cattle and sheep and prime lambs.

Mr Woodman expects store cattle prices to be down. "Finishers havent made anything for the last two years – there has to be some margin for them or they wont buy stores," he says.

Despite pressure on market prices last year, the Woodmans achieved a gross margin of £390/cow after variable costs of £130/cow. Gross margin is £320/ha (£130/ac) according to Signet figures.

"Im almost certain we wont see those margins this year – a lot will depend on buyers and stock quality," says Mr Woodman.

Poor weather has checked both grass quality and growth. First cut silage normally has a D-value of 68, but this years cut could be as low as 63, reflecting conditions, he says. "Second cut will be worse, as will hay which has been cut and is lying wet."

Lamb growth is already three weeks behind schedule and he suspects that when the weather improves a flood of finished lambs will take their toll on market prices. Stocks of winter feed may have to be opened early to finish lambs for the fat market at Hexham.

"Normally theyd finish on reseeds, but its so wet weve not begun to plough. I expect well have to supplement lambs with up to 1lb/head/day of a barley and protein mix so we can get them away at 45kg liveweight."

Store cattle have also suffered in the bad weather, and havent got the bloom from grass, says Mr Woodman. "We may have to supplement with up to 7lb/head/day barley before autumn sales. Stores take priority over lambs. Its not that well see better prices, but I hope store cattle prices wont fall like last years lamb prices."

However, a new 50m x 10m (165ft x 30ft) shed – built with a 45% grant from the EU in lieu of accepting National Park Authority grazing restrictions – means that 60 stores could be over-wintered, where there is adequate forage. Lack of space meant only 20 could be kept previously.

Access to increased winter housing means the Woodmans could choose to over-winter a greater proportion of poorer stores rather than risk undermining presentation and price paid for pens of quality stores sold in autumn.

But continued poor weather means that barley straw at £40/t delivered and hay at about £70/t may have to be purchased.

"If the weather improves and grass gets going we could cut back concentrates. But stores will have to stay off better grass, if only to avoid the risk of poaching as the ground will stay wet," he adds. &#42

WINTERPLANNING

&#8226 Poor forage quality.

&#8226 Uncertain price prospects.

&#8226 Limited housing.

What stock can be over-wintered depends on space and feed, but prospects for both cattle and sheep look gloomy, says William Woodman.