15 March 2002

Prices remain low as lambing gets underway

At Pen-yr-Ochr the first

lamb of the season has

arrived, but marketing

last years crop is still

causing problems.

Robert Davies reports

TWO days before 60 hoggets being finished inside were due to be sold the price offered fell by 10p to 110p/kg, and there was another 5p/kg drop 24 hours later.

"We were not prepared to let them go at that price so we will have to go on feeding them a mixture of molassed cereals and soya for a while," says Edward Wozencraft. "We also have to keep 110 of last seasons lambs that were grazing in Hereford. About 30 are ready to go, but the whole lot are now grazing grass that should be rested for ewes and lambs.

"I admit I am pretty fed up and would like to know how farmers like me are supposed to plan ahead when the market is so unstable. With hindsight the decision to hold back lambs to finish in March – when demand is usually good – was a big mistake.

"I think the big retailers are taking advantage of market disruption and the shortage of feed on some farms to screw down prices. We have enough silage and hay to see us through, but several times in the last week I have wondered if hill farming has a future.

"I would rather get out than depend on agri-environment payments, and I am very doubtful about the long-term benefits of going organic. We are weighed down with paperwork and never seem to have the time we had in the past for routine work. Then there are the additional jobs like cleaning the bellies of lambs before sale and extra tagging. But we are earning less and less."

Mr Wozencrafts pessimism has not been helped by the weather. The second wettest winter he can remember has damaged culverts and left fields saturated. The worry now is how newborn lambs will cope after turnout.

Lambing will get into full swing from Mar 25. The ewes are looking fit and should drop healthy lambs, but he has been doing the job long enough to know that wet conditions kill more lambs than the cold. Ewes that are still out are now being fed in troughs and racks located on the solid floor of a small quarry.

Reluctantly, the couple decided to dip their heavily pregnant ewes when a few lambs returned from common land infected with scab. It took a day to clean and prepare the dip bath. It was filled with warm water and chemical, and the ewes were put through slowly and very gently. They were dreading the outcome, but none of the ewes aborted.

Because it is almost impossible to clear every sheep from shared grazings for dipping, Mr Wozencraft accepts that scab will remain a problem. While he can live with that, he is very concerned about the sharp rise in the number of bovine tuberculosis reactors in north Powys.

The farm has never had a positive test, but he knows that if it did the restrictions on the sale and movement of store cattle would be crippling.

"Many of the cattle farmers I talk to think that we are on the verge of a major TB crisis that could put many people out of business."

A much more rare condition hit a bullock that had to be put down and buried. The beast started producing copious amounts of nasal mucous and started losing weight.

"Our vet said it was a non-infectious disease of the nasal membranes. The practice sees about three cases a year, but it is more common among wildebeest in Africa."

Four finished cattle were sold recently through the Safeway Welsh beef group. Two heifers weighed 312kg and 328kg on the hook, and the two steers 374kg and 396kg. One steer graded U3 and the rest R3 or R3L.

"We will get a premium for marketing through the group, but I still have some doubt about selling the best cattle through schemes like this. The result could be to drag down the average price paid for cattle sold other ways and, after all, the premium deadweight price is based on the market average."

Six store bullocks and 12 store heifers will be marketed within the next fortnight. Two culled suckler cows recently made only 48.89p/kg.

Some lambs have been sold in the past month. A batch weighing an average of 29kg realised £27.55 a head, and another group of 31.5kg lambs averaged £29.90 a head.

Eunice Wozencraft made what could be the last check of the winter on 258 ewe lambs being wintered on tack in south Cardiganshire. They are due to return home at the end of the month and are looking well. She is also in charge of livestock movement paperwork and reports that there are far fewer problems than there were. "The system has been simplified, and the officials I deal with seem to want to help as much as they can."

Looking ahead, the partners are hoping for a dry spell to improve the ground enough for spreading early-bite fertiliser. They are also shopping around for a new heavy-duty tedder for next seasons silage and hay harvests.

"We want one that is robust enough to handle bulky crops of freshly cut grass. Ideally, we would go for a second-hand machine, but we are unlikely to find one that could be relied on take the sort of punishment involved." &#42

After one of the wettest winters ever, Edward Wozencraft is feeding ewes on the one bit of solid ground he can find – an old quarry floor.

&#8226 Pen-yr-Ochr, Llangurig, Powys, home farm for a business extending over three blocks of land totalling 184ha (442 acres), farmed by Edward and Eunice Wozencraft.

&#8226 All land is classified as severely disadvantaged. One 53ha (131 acre) rented block is unfenced hill grazing. Much of the land is extremely steep and exposed.

&#8226 The business runs 850 Elan Valley-type Welsh Mountain ewes, including a 60-head nucleus flock of elite females that are part of a group-breeding scheme. Forty crossbred suckler cows are run with Blonde and Limousin bulls. Calves are marketed as stores.

&#8226 The partners are members of community group linked to a technology transfer project focus farm, and are involved in scrapie genotyping scheme.

&#8226 There is one part-time worker and casual help is hired as required.

Pen-yr-Ochrs first lamb of the season has arrived.