4 June 1999

Thanks for potatoes as milk and pigs flounder

With milk and pig prices

loitering in the doldrums,

Anthony Lee casts an eye to

the future in our last visit to

Dowrich. Simon Wragg

reports

Its all action at Dowrich as the Lees race to get the last of the 69ha (170 acres) of first cut silage in before the weather changes. "Its the first of three cuts well be taking this season, but theres still about four weeks worth of silage stocks in the clamp," explains Mr Lee.

The 220-cow herd is being buffer-fed to get the improvement in yield that was lacking last year. High yielders are being pushed on with 1.3kg of a rape/soya mix fed with silage and potatoes.

They are also getting 2kg concentrate in the parlour. "According to our Axient consultant Richard Foster it has a lower substitution rate than silage and should complement the grazing."

Across the herd, daily milk yield is now 19.5 litres a cow; similar to last year. But this is offset by the fall in milk price. "Looking back to when we joined FARMERS WEEKLY milk had just about peaked at 25.9p a litre, including seasonality. This month with the 0.5p price fall well be looking at 18p now we are on level supply."

News of dairy and processor profits adds a tinge of bitterness. With the average Dairy Crest shareholder expected to receive £300 after a 14% jump in profits, Mr Lee sees this as a minor consolation. "Although not a direct supplier, at least we get some reward."

But it is how the profit was generated that gives him most concern, especially as its suggested to be due to lower prices for raw milk supplies. "If half the milk was bought from Milk Marque why arent we getting paid more?

"Milk Marque needs to be stronger; thats the only way to go. If processors wont pay for raw milk then we should be able to process our own and market products against them," he insists.

The strengthening of farmer marketing groups is finding favour in the south west with its limited outlets, he says. And that applies to pigs to: "Im right behind United Pig Marketing as a supplier to one of the nine groups in the alliance.

"It should give us the strength to be price setters instead of just takers, but I hope we can also hold on to our own identities," he says.

Pig prices have been "wavering in a downward motion" adding to financial concerns. Hence, the visit to the Pig & Poultry Fair was with empty pockets. "I didnt even buy an icecream!"

However, the 12 gilts bought in April have acclimatised well and are about to be served. More will be bought this month as older sows are drafted out, despite the stubborness of cull values to continue their cautious climb.

"Thank God weve had the potatoes," he says.

Planting of the 18ha (45 acres) of Estima and Fianna has just finished. "Ground conditions were good following a wet start. If good enough theyll go as pre-pack again through Banjo West Country Potatoes. Only time will tell."

This crop, along with maize planted later than neighbours crops due to moving pigs and other arable duties, is receiving an application of Bullet at 5 litres/ha (2 litres/acre) as a broad-spectrum weed killer. "My brother, Christopher, is busy with the sprayer."

And what of the future? Pig prospects look weak with gloomy forecasts of a large Continental kill still waiting to happen. Like many producers the lull is both depressing and tiresome.

"Its knowing whether to pull the plug or not. If we stopped serving tomorrow it would take a year to clear the farm of finished pigs. At the moment we continue to cover feed costs, but thats about all."

"But at other times pigs have been good and it has carried the potatoes," he reflects.

The family farm needs a mix of businesses, he says, and only a handful can afford to follow the path promoted by some pundits in specialising in just one enterprise, dairying being the preferred option.

"Have two or three helps reduce the risk of suffering from a price fall in one area. And thats what farming is about; limiting risk."

From this its clear where the drive to support amalgamation of farmer-run businesses is derived. But will it work? "Well just have to wait and see."

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 220 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.