9 July 1999

Weighing up the risks

Income from the sale of 45

beef bulls has lessened

the temptation to draw

Cilgoeds first new season

lambs at light weights.

Robert Davies reports

WHEN some single male mule lambs weighed 38kg, Ceiriog Jones considered trying to beat the expected seasonal market price decline.

But he decided that their conformation and end value would be boosted if they were 10kg heavier.

He accepts that market volatility could make the strategy risky, and he is worried about how unexpectedly low early season prime lamb returns and continuing low cull ewe prices will affect the autumn breeding ewe trade.

"Lambs are already making less then £1/kg, and 180 Beulah ewes we sold for killing made an average of £7.90 a head. This compared with £18.20 last year and £28.15 the year before. If there is a pro rata fall in the price of breeding ewes, prospects are very frightening indeed."

Like many hill farmers he is looking at ways of cutting production costs. One idea is to improve the conformation of his Beulah ewes to avoid the need to cross them, except perhaps to breed Mules for sale. Bred pure the breed requires a minimum of supplementary feeding and only 1% of ewes need lambing assistance.

Mr Jones feels that careful selection has produced a ewe of the right size and mature weight, but one that still needs better conformation to meet market specifications. Last year he used AI to put 30 ewes to the two rams selected for the breeds sire referencing scheme. Of the 49 live lambs, 24 are ram lambs.

"About five look promising and one of these is outstanding. He weighed 38kg at 10 weeks, or 4kg above the ram lamb average. His conformation is good and the plan is to use him on a nucleus flock of very good ewes selected by backfat and muscle depth scanning as part of the Welsh Sheep Strategy scheme."

The decision not to sell lambs early was helped when grazing pressure was reduced by renting 15.3ha (38 acres) of grass for conservation, by the arrival of a sheep annual premium top up cheque for £2194, and by income from selling beef bulls. These averaged £512 a head before charges, but the best Belgian Blue crosses made over £600 a head.

A dozen of the cattle were bought last December on green CIDs for £325 a head. After paying for 1.25t of cake and silage the sale price plus a £125 a head beef special premium payment meant the cattle generated a much improved margin.

This prompted Mr Jones to buy a batch of 300kg Saler bulls from a neighbour for £270 a head. These have red CIDs but still offer the prospect of realising about £550 a head in five months time.

Two calves were lost as the first 50 sucklers calved, but two cows threw twins. Some of the 63 cows should have been sold with calves at foot as part of the planned reduction in the suckler herd, but the candidates for culling produced excellent Belgian Blue cross bull calves. Instead, 10 extra quota units have been leased for £600; the cows will be sold for incineration after weaning and the calves will be finished.

The Belgian Blue bull that sired some good calves last year has been rehired, and a second will arrive shortly to serve the remaining cows.

Grass supply has remained good at Cilgoed. The cows and calves and ewes and lambs are all doing well. A total of 90 high dry matter good-quality big bales were made from a light crop of grass on 4.8ha (12 acres). These were double wrapped at an extra cost of 50p a bale with six layers of plastic to eliminate wastage

Hauling silage has become more difficult since Mr Jones has been running the unit single handed. To cut the number of trailer loads he has paid a local blacksmith £150 to extend a trailer

"I suppose it is a sign of the times that I did not simply go out and pay around £1000 to part exchange the trailer for a bigger one. With the squeeze on returns every cost has to be looked at very carefully. I am particularly worried about frightening increases in transport costs that are in the pipeline."

But Mr Jones accepts that some expenditure is inevitable to run his business efficiently. A 3.8ha (9.4-acre) block of pasture has been reseeded at a cost of about £250/ha (£100/acre). Surface treatment and the sowing of perennial ryegrass have pepped up another 5ha (12.5 acres) at a cost of around £72/ha (£29/acre). Weeds have also been sprayed on 12ha (30 acres) of steep and stony land that cannot be topped.

Like six local friends Ceiriog Jones has been disappointed to have his application for Tir Gofal, the all-Wales agri-environment scheme, turned down on the points system. &#42


&#8226 An 81ha (200-acre) farm in north Wales owned and run by Ceiriog Jones and his wife Mair who are also tenants on a further 18ha (44 acres). There is 10ha (25 acres) on an 11-month let.

&#8226 Most land is steep, classified as severely disadvantaged. It carries 760 Builth Wells-type Beulah ewes, 330 ewe lambs and 63 spring and summer calving suckler cows.

&#8226 Older ewes not breeding replacements are put to Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce Welsh Mules for sale as ewe lambs or yearlings. Bull calves, once finished on farm, now planned to be sold on green CIDs.

&#8226 Mr Jones was a Welsh Sheep Strategy scholarship winner in 1998. The farm is one of three in Wales selected for an MLC co-ordinated technology transfer project.