17 May 2002

Market forces are a fall for all

With the dairy cows out at

pasture and the weather

warming up there should be

plenty of optimism in the

air at Le Mont Hardy.

But French farmers are not

immune from market

forces, as Europe editor

Philip Clarke reports

BRITISH dairy farmers are not the only ones feeling the pressure of over-supplied commodity markets and falling farm-gate prices.

At Le Mont Hardy in northern France, John Lee and his two French partners, Benoit and Gilles Delauney, have also suffered a drop in prices as their buyer, GIE Laitier dAthis, struggles to find suitable outlets.

"Currently they are having to part with surplus milk for as little as k0.21/litre (13p/litre) and the base price for May deliveries stands at k0.29/litre (17.7p /litre)," says Mr Lee.

"Unfortunately we are getting even less than that – around k0.28/litre (17.2p/litre) – as we have had a few problems with milk quality, with some recurrent cases of high cell counts in freshly-calved cows.

"We also slipped up on total bacterial count for the first time ever, the result of finding a small deposit of cheese in a pipe that never normally takes milk. It was an expensive mistake – our current milk price is down k0.06/litre (3p/litre) on last years average – but we have now got the problem sorted."

On the plus side, at least milk is not costing much to produce at the moment.

The 74 Friesian Holsteins were initially turned out in early March, but were back indoors again 12 days later as the weather turned cold and the partners did not wish to sacrifice precious grassland.

But by Mar 25 they were out full time and are now giving about 20 litres/day each off grass. With the silage running out on Apr 5, the cows are also being fed 1kg of wheat and triticale and about 2kg of hay/day after milking.

"The cows have already started their second lap of the grazing circuit, as grass growth has only just taken off. It remains to be seen whether we can keep them off the untouched parcels being kept aside for silage."

The 15ha (37 acres) involved, including 2ha (5 acres) of a new rye grass/red clover mix, is likely to be cut at the end of May, somewhat later than many other farms in the area. "We are always one of the last to make silage round here as we graze so much," says Mr Lee.

The other main development in recent weeks has been the decision of one of the farms five staff, Stephane Gautier, not to pursue his integration into the business. He was seen as a potential new partner in the gaec.

"The decision was basically financial," explains Mr Lee. "A 22% share in the farm business would have needed repayments of about k575/month (£350/month). And buying a house would cost a further k410-490/month (£250-300/month). Even allowing for the lower cost of living in France, that would not leave a great deal of room for manoeuvre."

Mr Lee admits that five people on 114ha (282 acres) with 75 cows and 42 sows might look a bit "Polish" anyway. "Perhaps four will feel a bit more comfortable and allow us to accommodate more of farmings downturns."

On this subject, there is some concern in France at the moment on the impact of the countrys first case in ten years of classical swine fever, found in a herd at Cemery-les-Deux, Moselle, in the east of the country.

Last week Brussels took the decision to ban exports of live pigs, semen, ova and embryos from the immediate area until Jun 30 at the earliest. Several countries have gone further and banned all imports of French pork. As such, prices have dropped 10% to just k1/kg (62p/kg).

The disease is believed to have arrived in the country from wild pigs in Germany and Luxembourg.

Swine fever is not the only thing to have come in from the east. Last month Mr Lee and his nine-year-old son, Pierre-Julian, flew to Prague in the Czech Republic to meet an old university friend working at the British Council and pick up her old Land Rover Defender 90.

After a few days break, the two then set off for the three-day journey home to Normandy. "In total we covered some 1700km, including a bit of off-roading in the forests of the Ardennes. In its 14-year life the Land Rover has spent time in Kazakstan and St Petersburg, as well as Prague. Pottering around the lanes of northern France might seem pretty tame."

Mr Lee got back to France in time for the shock news about right wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen getting second place in the presidential elections and contesting the final run-off against Jacques Chirac.

"I wasnt feeling too good when I heard the news. Id already done my back in giving a calf a helping hand into the world, so rather than sit around at home, I propped up the local bar that night to challenge any Le Penists.

"But all I could find was a resentful tree surgeon – resentful at the 35-hour working week and at the fact everyone except him seemed to get subsidies. Unlike most Le Penists, however, he was not at all resentful of the English, as he had a few lucrative maintenance contracts for English holiday homes."

Like most of France, Mr Lee was pleased that Le Pen failed to improve on his 18% share of the vote in the final election. &#42

Dairy cows at Le Mont Hardy enjoy a quick post-milking snack before returning to pasture for some proper grazing.

John Lee and nine-year-old son, Pierre-Julian, recently returned from Prague in the Czech Republic where they picked up a friends second-hand Land Rover Defender 90.

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Le Mont Hardy, a 112ha (277 acre) dairy and pig unit near Putanges in the heart of Normandy, France.

&#8226 Farmed by John Lee, in partnership with Benoit and Gilles Delaunay.

&#8226 Mixed soil types, growing 76ha (188 acres) of grass and clover, plus 34ha (84 acres) of cereals.

&#8226 Dairy herd made up of 72 Friesians, plus followers.

&#8226 Pig herd made up of 42 Large White Landrace hybrids, with 800 finishers a year.

&#8226 Dairy currently in organic conversion.

&#8226 Pigmeat sold direct to consumers.