27 March 1998

Stores bring some cheer…

The sale of a batch of store

cattle brought some good

news for Alan and Lorna

Jackson. About time, they

tell Tim Relf, with finished

beef prices now at an

all-time low

SURPRISE is what the Jacksons felt at the price made by the 38 stores recently sold at Wooler and Hexham marts.

At 19-months-old – and 550kg farm liveweight – they averaged £598. "Pretty good – comparatively," says Alan. By "comparatively", he means with the finished beasts. A batch left the farm recently, and some made as little as 161p/kg dw, a 20-year low.

Alan attributes the buoyant store demand to one factor – subsidy potential. On green CIDs, each animal had two payments, each of about £85, still to come. This could not be claimed at Rugley, where the 90-head annual ceiling on claims has been topped. But other farmers were looking for subsidy and were prepared to pay for it, too.

For farmers buying stores, however, it must be a fine line between profit and loss, says Alan. If the stock only grosses, say, £540 a head, thats £60 less than it cost.

"For whats left of the subsidy, therefore, you have to keep them, feed them, put nearly 100kg on them. And claiming the subsidy – some of which wont be paid until next year – is a load of hassle."

All the while people are prepared to bid hard for stores, so Alan plans to keep offering them. Another 30 might, depending on the trade, go through the ring next month. But already, Alan fears values have fallen from their temporary high.

"Its a volatile business. They can be up or down £50 a head in a week. We hit the market right this time for once. You dont just have to be a good farmer any more – you have to be a good clairvoyant."

There are also 85 fattening cattle ready to shift. In a typical season, more would have been moved by this point but, as Alan points out, theres no longer such a thing as a typical season.

"Besides, with the prices theyre currently making, theres no rush. Providing theyre not costing too much to keep – and not dropping in p/kg value – it pays to get them bigger. All the experts tell us this is wrong. But we might as well sell them big and cheap as little and cheap."

Its much the same debate in deciding whether to keep more Aberdeen-Angus, still a newish venture at Rugley. "Im yet to be convinced that the extra p/kg value compensates sufficiently for the lower growth rate and carcass size compared with the Continentals which have traditionally filled the sheds."

In addition to the low prime prices, Alan blames the lack of profit in beef fattening on the relatively high cost of calves – his raw material. "Years ago, the calf cost about 15% of the finished products value, now it costs about 30%.

"The slaughter scheme, imposing as it does an unnaturally high floor in values, is the main reason. But if it were to be removed, thousands more calves – many of dubious quality – would be reared, further depressing the market."

Next month will also see 55 heifers calve at Rugley. Ever-conscious of cash flow, the original plan was to sell some with calves at foot. But the £1000 once thought attainable, Alan now admits, is "pie in the sky". So it could mean leasing in suckler cow quota and keeping them. Theyre inside, eating straw at the moment, but will go outside to calve.

Not yet knowing how big the farms complement of stock will be this year isnt making forage planning any easier. But whatever happens, a decision will have to be taken by the end of next month whether to graze fields or allocate them for silage.

Matters are complicated because the farm has a smaller grass area. "The ewes and lambs coming out of the sheds have less to go at – so it has to be good." Cattle wont be far behind, either, with turnout pencilled in for early May.

Some of the grass received its first dose of fertiliser this week. The Nitram delivered for £97/t in November marked a return to domestically-made product, after last seasons imported buy caused a few quality concerns.

Permanent pasture will not, however, be getting its usual dose of P and K. Confident that indeces are sufficiently high, this job has been dropped, with a saving of about £2000. Similarly, plans to lime 40ha (100 acres) at a cost of £50/ha (£20/acre) are shelved.

The grass looks well at the moment and mild weather has also given the arable crops a flying start.

"But well probably see a few more frosts yet," says Alan. "It wouldnt be unknown to have snow at lambing time."

Early lambs from the Jacksons 60 Suffolk and 15 Texels, destined for ram sales, are now out. The bulk of the lambing started this week.

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 Three full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.