Spring lambs keep mind off beef uncertainty

Martin Howlett is worried.

The ending of the over-30-months scheme threatens to send beef prices plummeting, just as he is choosing the first fat cattle of the year to sell.

“We are fearful of what will happen to beef prices after OTMS,” he says.

“We are heading for a real period of insecurity, but we can do no more than watch the market and keep pressure on the government to step in sooner rather than later if emergency measures are needed.”

Mr Howlett says the industry needs 2/kg deadweight for a sustained period to break even, but prices in the south west last week were just 178p/kg.

“The commitment of the supermarkets last autumn to meet the requirement for 2/kg by Christmas seems to have evaporated, but it is absolutely vital that we get that.”

It is also essential that exports resume as soon as possible, he adds.

“There’s absolutely no reason why the EU shouldn’t accept the re-opening of exports and why it couldn’t have been dovetailed in with the ending of the OTMS.”

Three of Deer Park Farm’s older cows were sent into the OTMS last week, but Mr Howlett plans to keep the remaining six until they have seen out their useful life.

“We will have to decide when to best send them into the Older Cattle Disposal Scheme because the payment will fall by about 25/head each year until it ends in 2008.”

On-farm casualties – apart from those caused by accidents – will also not be eligible for the scheme, rendering them worthless.

“Another concern is that there are only two OCDS abattoirs in the south west, and one of them is closing.

We will have to take our older cattle further and further away.”

Health and welfare have become a hot topic in the region, as the south west is piloting a new programme to improve health and cut costs.

“Farmers have a real desire to help take the industry forward.

But how can we go forward when we’ve got TB hanging round our neck?”

Pre-movement testing of cattle, due to come in on 20 February, will cause tremendous problems ahead of the spring store sales, says Mr Howlett.

Although he doesn’t sell many stores, he will have problems when turning his cattle out for summer grazing.

“The off-ground is rented under a separate farm business name, so although it is only a mile away, we will have to test about 100 cattle before moving them away and back again, at a cost of about 1000/year.

“We’re not against the health check, but if you’re going to control TB you have to address both the farming and wildlife sectors.”

Meanwhile, Mr Howlett and his brother Geoff are busy lambing the first batch of 150 continental cross ewes, and have just got the scan results for the second group, due to lamb in March.

“They have averaged 141%, which isn’t very good.

I normally aim for a 175% scanning rate and 150% selling rate.”

However, many farmers in the area have decided to lamb a bit later this year, due to poor early prices, says Mr Howlett.

“And a lot of them have had lower scanning averages due to the dry autumn last year.”

Mr Howlett sells his lambs to Jaspers at South Petherwin, which supplies Tesco, but he is concerned about the knock-on effects of the closure of Devon-based Lloyd Maunder’s lamb operations next month.

“It is harder to see a buoyant market – nobody seems to have any confidence in prices at the moment, particularly with the link between lamb and beef values.”

This week also sees the end of Mr Howlett’s four-year term of office as the region’s NFU livestock chairman and headquarters delegate, although he has promised to stay another year as a regional board member awaiting a replacement.

“In that time I have worked hard to represent the south west and I am very supportive of a south west brand to add value to our product.

However, we need now, more than ever, to work together – both within the NFU and outside it.

If we all spoke with one voice for agriculture then we’d have far more clout.”