18 September 1998

Shearling sale brings relief

For Alan and Lorna Jackson,

the trip to Kelso ram sales

last week provided a

pleasant diversion from the

weather-related problems

currently besetting Rugley.

Tim Relf reports

PRICES made by Rugleys Suffolk shearlings at Kelso were good, says Alan, considering the depressed fat lamb trade, recent bad publicity over sheep and BSE, and the widespread farming depression.

The 22 shearlings averaged £560, which was down £120 on last year. "But some people saw their averages fall well over £200," says Alan. The five ram lambs didnt sell so well, levelling £200.

It is in a tough season like this that being a regular vendor at a well-known auction like Kelso pays off, he reckons. Some of the buyers of Rugley stock have been coming back for 10 years. "You need those customers in a bad year. We were relieved – it could have been a lot worse."

The Jacksons top priced shearling was 780gns. "It wasnt a huge amount, but the average was decent enough, which is more important.

"The money from rams is looking like keeping the business afloat at the moment." Not only is payment for fertiliser now due but so, too, is the rent.

A week before Kelso, two Texel shearlings had been sold at Carlisle, averaging £520 and two lambs had levelled £184. "Not unhappy with that, either," was Alans view. "People are still buying decent rams. They recognise a good tup is needed for good lambs."

However, finished lambs are not contributing much to the bottom line. By early this week, only two batches had been sold, the first lot typically making £43 apiece and the second lot £36.

Wet weather remains the chief problem besetting the lambs – as it does with just about every other enterprise on the farm. "Lambs were born in the mud in April and have spend much of the time since in it," says Alan.

Cattle have not done much better, with 100 now housed in the face of wet and plunged fields. They look to be 50kg lighter than would be expected for mid-September. "That means theyll finish later. We will be able to put the growth back on them – but it will mean doing it inside and that will be more expensive. Outside growth is, after all, cheap growth."

Diabolical weather has also hit the arable harvest. "Weve forgotten what sunshine is like," says Alan. The last of the wheat usually comes off the field about the time of the annual trip to Kelso. Not this year, though, when only 2ha (5 acres) had been cut at that time – leaving another 62ha (150 acres) still to do, some of which was beginning to sprout in the field.

The barley crop was also disapp-ointing, averaging 4.9t/ha (2t/acre), which was 2.5t/ha (1t/acre) less than the five-year average.

Quality was also disappointing, with specific weight all below 60 kg/ha. "We had been hoping to sell a lot of it to give a boost to cashflow, but low quality put pay to that." In the end, just 100t was sold, leaving slightly more again left on the farm destined for cattle feed.

Prospects are not good for the straw crop, either – something upon which the Jacksons will be more dependent that ever. Some has already been bought off the field from a local farmer at a cost of £37/ha (£15/acre).

But much of Rugleys own straw – already looking black and weathered – will be of little bedding value. Less will be on offer locally, too, as farmers choose to chop, rather than bale, in a bid to speed up autumn cultivations.

"The straw market is completely dependent on supply and market," says Alan. "Some winters people cant give it away. I dont think it will be like that this year."

The only bright spot of the harvest has been the oilseed rape. The Apex, on set-aside and destined for industrial use, gave 3.46t/ha (1.4t/acre) and the £120/t payment is due later this month.

The Pronto oilseed rape yielded 3.95t/ha (1.6t/acre), a yield with which the Jacksons were very pleased – though they have been unable to buy any more Pronto for this season.

Autumn cultivations and drilling are, perhaps, the biggest casualties of the wet weather. Just 89ha (36 acres) of Synergy rape and a small area of grass ley have gone in and, with many fields cold and waterlogged, the prospects are not good for the other arable crops.

"Ive known for a long time how depressing it is to be a beef farmer," says Alan. "Now I feel the same about lambs and grain." &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 280ha (690-acre) arable and grass unit in the north east, farmed by Alan and Lorna Jackson on a full agricultural tenancy from the Duke of Northumberland.

&#8226 Heavy land growing combinable crops and grass, 25% in the LFA.

&#8226 Continental cross beef cattle finished on semi-intensive system.

&#8226 British Milksheep producing prime lambs, plus small pedigree Suffolk and Texel enterprises.

&#8226 Two full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.