13 November 1998

Tag checks a sad reflection

The Dalrymples may not be

able to win the Lottery, but

a less welcome number

came up recently – cattle

traceability inspections by

Scottish Office officials.

Allan Wright reports

KINGS Arms received just 24 hours warning that government inspectors were to call to check passports, cattle control documents, and the ear-tags of all calves.

"It did not really matter because it was so wet that nothing much was being done on the farm anyway," says Robert.

It is a sad reflection on the integrity of farming that such a high level of inspections is needed, he says. It can only mean that too many individuals are trying the cheat the system.

That view was supported at a London conference last week when it was suggested that 10,000 beef cattle were without ear-tags or records, suggesting a real possibility of a black market in the meat from such animals.

The two inspectors arrived at Kings Arms at 9.30am and worked until 12.30pm on the paperwork. High on the list was a check to ensure no documents had been issued for animals which did not exist. One error was found, which, luckily, was attributed to the Scottish Office.

The next check was to make sure calf numbers matched the identity of the dams in the farm records. "Of course they checked out; we have all our records on computer, there at the touch of a button. It seemed rather a waste of time," says Caroline.

To complete the exercise, the inspectors had to verify calf ear-tags. Robert persuaded them that checking those in the field was not practical and they settled for housed animals instead.

"Having checked numbers against their list using the plastic management tags, they then had to see 20% of the calves in the handling system to check that the metal tag numbers corresponded to the plastic ones. From start to finish, the whole exercise took five hours," recalls Robert.

But another cattle tracing effort has had a relatively pleasant ending for the Dalrymples. "The search for BSE cohorts turned up only one in our stock. We had feared it could run into double figures. We now wait to agree a valuation before the animal is removed."

Cows and calves are now housed for the winter, a good move given the current bad weather across southern Scotland. "We are having to renew cattle handling pens but they have served us well. They are 15 years old and prove that it pays to do the job well in the first place."

There are 240 lambs still to market. "The appalling wet weather and the equally depressing prices stopped marketing for a couple of weeks. We are feeding now, but the price delayed that expense longer than in a normal year. The last of the lambs will go onto the reseeds," says Robert.

Pregnancy diagnosis of the cows showed 14 not in calf compared with 12 last year. In the sheep fields tupping, despite using teaser rams, started slowly and then accelerated rapidly as the ewes reached a second cycle. "From a dozen a day it suddenly shot up to around 140 and that will mean some very busy days in the lambing shed. But it could work out because a high number of pregnancies from early tupping usually results in a lot of singles," he notes.

Straw is proving expensive. Big bales are 12% dearer than last year at £47/t. And a load of small bales at £62/t was about 30% more expensive than in 1997.

The Dalrymples try to be optimists, but they admit to being depressed about the general state of farming. "I think our income will be down about 45% on the year and it is difficult to see things improving or how we can cut costs. You can save £5 here or there, but it is nothing compared with the sort of drop in income we are talking about," says Robert.

"We have made almost no capital investment this year and I am still undecided about renewing the teleporter or renovating the existing one to do another year or two.

"What we have decided is that we will stick with the same mix of beef and sheep. I cant see much sense in changing a system which works for the farm. We want to be farmers and we enjoy farming and the countryside. But we are going through a traumatic time. Sadly, the only real answer is fewer farmers producing less so that the market pays reasonable returns once again." &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 Kings Arms and Crailoch Farms, at Ballantrae on the Ayrshire coast, run as one 262ha (650-acre) unit by Robert and Caroline Dalrymple.

&#8226 Grass the only crop – for grazing and high quality silage. It is an early area but land near the sea is sandy and burns easily in summer.

&#8226 Suckler herd of 180 cows mated to Charolais sires and progeny sold as yearlings.

&#8226 Sheep flock of 900 Mule and Texel-cross ewes lambing from mid-February. About 300 hoggs are also lambed.

&#8226 Farm staff of three.