Animal movement restrictions in the wake of recent foot and mouth outbreaks could not have come at a worse time for Aled Jones. Robert Davies reports
The frustration of not being able to shift animals at the optimum time has brought home the importance of careful market timing to a grazing-based production system.
While only 200 finished lambs were left to sell, Mr Jones still had to find grazing for 240 pre-sold Inverdale Texel-sired ewe lambs and 280 Welsh Mule ewe lambs that a regular buyer was ready to take.
“We also have about 200 broken-mouthed ewes that are fit enough to produce one more crop of lambs under kinder, lowland conditions,” he says. “A potential buyer was due to call just a few days after the movement regulations were tightened again.”
Also likely to hit him in the pocket is the cancellation of the big National Sheep Association multi-breed ram sale at Builth Wells, where he was planning to sell five rams from his tiny flock of registered Bluefaced Leicester sheep.
These are always sold in fit rather than “pumped up” condition to buyers who want rams that are fit to work without shedding too much weight.
“The big worry this year is that we are carrying too many sheep at the time we should be planning to shut off fields for tupping and for deferred grazing in the winter.
“There will not be enough grass if we are prevented from selling for too long. That will mean spending on purchased feed blocks, and possibly on expensive long fodders.”
It would be possible to finish the remaining lambs quickly using concentrate feeds, but there is no incentive to do so when deadweight prices are poor.
“We are so vulnerable to the influence of abattoirs and retailers. It really hurt me to see producers being offered prices way below the cost of production. At one stage finished Mule lambs were making 92p/kg (liveweight), and when movement regulations were re-introduced the quoted deadweight price plunged from 240p/kg to 220p/kg or less.”
Mr Jones believes it is time for the industry to unite and, possibly, recruit support from auctioneers to pressure primestock buyers to pay fairer prices. “I look forward to the day that an auctioneer stops taking bids and moves on to the next pen when a reasonable base price is not reached.”
However, he admits that 2007 looked like being a fairly good year until the first foot-and-mouth outbreak. The 320 Beulahs put to Inverdale rams produced 240 ewe lambs to be sold back to breeding company Inovis at the pre-agreed price of £46 a head, including £1 a head bonus to acknowledge the lambing percentage achieved. “I think that there could be real benefits in this type of contract marketing.”
The eight ram lambs used to cost £100 a head to hire from Inovis. Five were returned after tupping, leaving the trio of shearlings required to cover the same number of ewes in October. But Mr Jones decided to put another 100 ewes to an Inverdale and has hired in one extra shearling so costs will rise.
“In the past our Texel-cross ewe lambs went for meat at about £1/kg. But those sired by Inverdale rams will realise about £10 a head more if they weigh at least 34kg on sale day, and there is a pre-arranged market for them.”
As well as contract marketing, Mr Jones also favours private, on-farm sales of cull ewes and the Mules bred by putting Blueface Leicester rams on some of the Beulahs.
“We could sell the Mule ewe lambs through the breed association sales, but would have to spend money on a special colour dip, find the time to trim them and possibly use some creep feed. We would also have to pay commission.
“Not all the Mules we breed would make top prices so, if we get an average of £5 a head less at home than we would in one of the sales, we can be better off marketing this way.
“One buyer has taken our Mule ewe lambs for several years to run empty on an easy-care system to sell as yearlings at one of the official breed sales. The arrangement suits both sides very well.”
The difficult marketing conditions this year have led to a re-appraisal of production costs. “It is very difficult to see where we can cut back. We do not use fertiliser or make winter fodder. Because we are a Farming Connect demonstration farm our mineral use has been looked at.
“Soils are deficient in cobalt and selenium, but blood tests have not shown any problems. I think the roughly £1 a ewe we spend on minerals actually makes us money.”
Mr Jones acknowledges that he can do little about the fact that it costs more to shear the flock and wrap the wool than it is worth. This year the 52 sheets made £3 each before paying £80 for haulage. The shearers’ bill has yet to arrive.
“All I can do is to try to shear more sheep myself, and that is what I have done this year, but we will still lose a lot of money on the clip.”
He is also seeking to reduce the fast rising cost of running the Landrover and quadbike, which he provides as part of his profit-sharing deal with Rupert Greenwell, the farm’s owner.
“When Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) surveyed production costs ours were well below average, so we must try to increase returns by better grassland management and improving the quality of the stock we produce and the efficiency of our marketing.”
Flock health is given a high priority. Currently Mr Jones is having a blitz on lameness, a nagging if not very serious problem. He is certain that particular genetic lines are more susceptible. Ewes with recurring problems and rams that persistently sire lambs that go lame are being culled.
Another early autumn disappointment was connected to F&M restrictions. For the second time a planned Farming Connect open day was cancelled, depriving Mr Jones of feedback from other farmers about how the system has developed over the last year.
“At least the discussion group linked to the farm is still able to meet [off-farm] so members can tell me what they think about it and, without pulling any punches, about what I say in FW’s Management Matters reports.”