8 August 1997

Sell it or use it: Farmers dilemma

By Tim Relf

STORE cattle prices have firmed, in the face of abundant grass supplies, cheap straw and rock-bottom grain prices.

Farmers have seen bumper crops of hay and silage. Straw, in some case, has been difficult to give away. And feed barley, at less than £70/t last week, was worth about two-thirds what it was a year ago.

"A hot day and a hot trade," said auctioneer Glyn Owens, after selling stores at Knighton, Powys last Friday.

The day saw 300 homebred Continental cross steers and heifers average 125p and 108p/kg respectively.

At the corresponding sale last year, the figures were 112p and 91p/kg respectively. (Values are still down on the pre-BSE days of two years ago, however, when averages were 133p and 113p/kg.)

"The lacklustre corn trade is tempting farmers to feed cattle again," said Mr Owens. "An abundance of fodder and litter straw should also help lessen finishing costs and restore a reasonable profit for the fattener."

Tight supplies were also behind the upturn, with the calf slaughter scheme beginning to bite. "People are also keeping fewer suckler cows."

Auctioneer Bruce Walton at Hexham, Northumberland saw an across-the-board average of £418 at last Fridays store sale. He said the recovery is "grass led", rather than as a result of improved confidence in the finished trade.

"That keeps going up and down – which is more unsettling than when it stayed in one place."

The smaller cattle are getting the best trade, said Mr Walton. "Those that have the potential to grow into money."

Tom Whirledge at Chelmsford, Essex, said there is a belief that the beef trade will be firmer in November and December.

"Those farmers that have corn and empty yards may be tempted to go back into beef."

Alternatively, they may prefer to sit on the corn and hope it reaches the budgeted price. After all, any weakening of sterling, which will help beef prices by discouraging imports, would also help grain prices, points out Mr Whirledge.

Feed it or flog it? If youve got cattle, it might make more sense to give grain to stock, rather than sell it off the combine this year.