27 November 1998

Sheep award is flicker in gloom

Winning the MLC Sheep

Producer of the Year award

brought a smile to the faces

of Alan and Lorna Jackson.

Its a shame there isnt more

cause for optimism.

Tim Relf reports

A BRIGHT spot in a bleak year, is how Alan describes scooping the top accolade.

It relates to performance in 1996/97, a period when sheep prices were riding high on the back of the BSE-related slump in beef eating. That suited a high-input, high-output system, with its lambing percentage of more than 200 and stocking rate of nearly 12 ewes/ha.

The pendulum has since swung, says Alan. "We certainly wont be winning the 1997/98 award." The slump in lamb values has hit Rugleys system harder than less intensive ones.

Lambs have been making 155p/kg dw and, last week, a price of 145p/kg dw was quoted. Quoted and declined. Values of more than 200p/kg last year and pushing 300p/kg in 1996 seem a lifetime ago.

If current prices continue, the production system will be reviewed.

One option would be to change the breeding emphasis so – while remaining "self-contained" – the emphasis would shift from Milksheep cross Texels to easier-fleshing, easier-feeding animals.

Meanwhile the wet weather continues. "Flock performance has been atrocious," says Alan, who is expecting a drop of nearly 20% in the lambing percentage compared with 1997. "The economics are terrible – but its the weather thats really clobbering us."

Stock is finishing slowly, killing-out percentages are 2-3% lower than usual (reducing the weight by about 1kg) and less than half as many as usual are hitting the U-grade.

Animals have been brought inside and, for the first time ever, some ewes will have to be tupped in the sheds. Ground conditions, meanwhile, are so bad that outside feeding will soon be on the cards. "Look at the grass and youd think its January."

Such worries, however, were temporarily forgotten by the Jacksons on their two-day trip to the capital to collect the MLC award. "A chance to see where the money is," says Alan. They enjoyed the trip and collected a pair of decanters – but it wasnt without a price: Alan agreed to speak at a local conference and is to host a farm open day next summer.

They returned to Rugley to find no sign of the rain abating. Well over 5cm (2in) of rain fell in one day. "We put the plough and drill away for the winter."

About 45ha (110 acres) of arable crops have not been sown, leaving spring barley or rape as the only option. "Its not too late in terms of date, but its too cold for the ground to dry enough now."

The last two harvests have been bad. This autumns late drilling means the next two are looking none too bright, says Alan. "With little winter barley sown this autumn – and more reliance on the later spring crops – well be struggling to sow winter oilseed rape next autumn. So that will impact on harvest 2000."

The governments farming aid package has brought a little relief. The Jacksons will miss out on the extra suckler cow money of nearly £30/cow because this is based on 1996 claims – and the Rugley herd was only established in 1997. It was a similar story in 1996 when the BSE payment was distributed to people with cows. "Weve missed out twice over," says Alan.

The £60m allocated by government to boost Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances by 55% will benefit Rugley, a quarter of which is designated LFA.

Bad weather and bad luck isnt without exception, it seems.

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.