17 May 2002

Paring costs vital for beef and lamb

By Carol McLaren

PREMIUMS for organic beef and lamb are under growing pressure with imports and increased domestic production. But one Scottish producer believes he will benefit from lower cost production even if organic premiums diminish.

Speaking at an Edinburgh grassland open day run by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research and the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, East Lothian producer John Hamilton said the lessons he has learnt by switching to organic are invaluable.

Mr Hamilton, who runs 200 suckler cows and 1300 ewes at the 770ha (1900-acre) Arkengall farm, near Dunbar, said the driving force behind his decision to go organic was purely commercial.

Organic farming grants were the initial attraction, but premiums for stock have so far been good. "We sold hoggs at 280p/kg in early May, compared with a conventional price of 240p/kg and we hope to sell young lambs in late May at 320p/kg," he said. Cattle are sold on contract to Waitrose at 260p/kg deadweight, compared with 180p/kg for conventional beef.

But in Mr Hamiltons view organic sheep premiums have bottomed out and, with so many upland hill farms turning organic, the possible flood of autumn lamb is a worry.

Cattle have taken longer to approach saturation point, but the past six months have seen a marked increase and some major retailers have closed the door to new producers, he said. "Its becoming a crowded marketplace with a lot of meat coming in from abroad, probably to lower standards," added Mr Hamilton.

Questioned why, given adequate UK supplies, certain retailers are still stocking imported organic beef, he said some supermarkets would only source organic meat at a lower price. He also emphasised the throughput of organic meat on retailers shelves was still low and consistent supply was needed. He markets his cattle and lambs 12 months of the year.

This is achieved using an easy-care Blackface ewe to keep costs low. Cows are mainly Simmental and Limousin, although a move to Simmental and Shorthorn is planned. Simmentals have the highest fat cover of all Continentals and a slightly larger gut, meaning better forage use, while Charolais, Limousins and Belgian Blues are too muscly and need too much concentrate, he said.

"The most important thing organic farming has taught us is to cut costs out of the system. We run an almost closed system, only buying in tups and bulls and we havent vaccinated sheep or bought any minerals for above three years.

"Dosing is virtually down to nil and my vet bill for 200 suckler cows and 1400 ewes was £4000 last year," said Mr Hamilton.

Whole-crop is used for finishing cattle with the combination of peas and barley requiring no additional protein concentrate supplements.

One worry is the impact of rules requiring an increased percentage of organic grass in seed mixtures, which could, he said, increase his seed costs by £50-75/ha (£20-30/acre). &#42

Easy-care livestock are needed for a low-cost organic system to be successful, says John Hamilton.

&#8226 Lower cost system.

&#8226 Breeds selected carefully.

&#8226 Vet costs minimal.