16 October 1998

Suckler co-op made the most of BSEbad news

In our new series on farmer-

run marketing co-operatives

we look at one success

story in East Anglia that

made the most of

opportunities from the BSE

crisis. James Garner reports

THERES been little good news in the beef industry since the BSE crisis broke in March 1996. Ironically, the crisis provided valuable opportunities for one group of East Anglian beef producers who had joined together to form a farmer-run marketing group four years earlier, in 1992.

The group, East Anglian Sucklers, has grown in strength since 1996. Previously, difficulties competing against live market outlets kept marketing levels at 250-300 cattle a year.

Geoff Warrener, co-op director, explains. "We reached a stage where a more pro-active approach was needed to grow the business. We decided that I should take on the role of finding more cattle and improving throughput.

"Marketing the groups animals has never been difficult because we began as suckler producers selling progeny. This had benefits, particularly after the BSE crisis, because they were high quality animals with a traceable background.

"BSE brought other opportunities, as smaller markets in East Anglia closed down, leaving Norwich as the only live beef market in the area and that trades only once a week," he says.

"East Anglian producers are a long way from the main supermarket abattoirs in southern England or the midlands. Individually they couldnt sell to these markets as haulage would be too costly, leaving them to use either the local dealer network or live market."

The group now has 60 members, supplying more than 2000 cattle a year. It is organised as a limited company, with a one-off joining fee of £70, which includes one share ownership. Each animals marketing costs are £5.50/head, which includes £2 insurance cover.

"We are members of Countrywide Primestock Producers, which means producers are guaranteed 85% of the animals value where there are financial problems with an abattoir."

"Membership of CPP also helped us during the BSE crisis, as we were entitled to 8% of its weekly cull cow allocation. This attracted new members wishing to clear culls. Most of them have stayed with us," he says.

"We have an open door policy, meaning that producers receive their individual weighing and grading within 48 hours. The groups fees are based on commission a head sold so were not trading to make a profit. We also use good, reliable local hauliers."

Mr Warrener, as well as being main group fieldsman also has a farm near Huntingdon, and keeps 150 suckler cows. All progeny is marketed through the group. "I source cattle as well as finding markets for them. Some producers want help drawing cattle, and Im more than happy to do it," he says.

"We supply major supermarket abattoirs and butchers, and can target specific markets. We do sell to multiples, and have members who are part of supermarket producer schemes."

Members are encouraged to join FABBL and meet welfare standards. "Where you dont qualify, you dont have a choice of markets, and because we trade with more than one supermarket, we can choose the best price. Supermarkets are bulk buyers, but they dont offer the best price every week. The butchery market is sometimes better."

"As a group, we can now provide continuity of supply and good quality meat, which means buyers will contact us," he says.

The group has maintained customer loyalty by making the most of opportunities from the BSE crisis, progressing with developing markets and providing personal contact with producers.

"Obviously, we face competition from the established dealer network and live markets, and there are some producers who will continue to use them. We welcome the competition – its healthy and keeps us on our toes," he adds.

One advantage over the competition is its open pricing policy. "We dont alter price to remain competitive; what is quoted to us is passed to the producer."

Three people work for the group; Mr Warrener, the group secretary and another fieldsman in the east of the region. All are farmers, which can put some producers off, he admits. "Its the thought of another farmer prying into your business.

"But weve taken on another fieldsman to cope with the work and expand other markets such as store cattle. Our policy is to buy all stock, not just premium cattle. We sell problem stock as well, such as cull cows and bulls, which producers appreciate," he says.

"We are looking at other areas, such as group purchasing of feeds, to help reduce costs for individual members and help maintain and build our membership," he says.

Commenting on his role in the group, Mr Warrener says "Its hard work, but as long as we can maintain enthusiasm among members, I think our future is bright. I enjoy my role, although Im lucky that my fathers still actively involved in our farm. With farming in the doldrums, I see my position as diversification to earn extra income."

BEEFMARKETING

&#8226 BSE offered opportunity

&#8226 Sell all classes of stock

&#8226 Open pricing policy

&#8226 Considering other areas