TB has struck again at Deer Park Farm, but after two weeks on a rural leadership course Martin Howlett is determined to remain positive, reports Olivia Cooper
The latest TB test at Deer Park Farm brought mixed fortunes for the Howlett family, with one group of cattle being cleared of the disease while the other produced two new reactors.
Martin Howlett was thrilled when his Welsh Black cattle, kept on off-lying land, tested free of the disease after 12 months under restriction. But his delight was short-lived, with vets discovering two reactors on the home farm for the first time.
“It is terribly worrying that the affected fold of Highland cattle has been in the same field all year and we’ve never encountered TB problems there before,” he says. “What is particularly sad is that one of the reactors is a 13-year-old cow with a young calf at foot. We have, therefore, taken the option to keep her over the winter to allow the calf a fair chance of survival.”
With the off-lying cattle back on the home farm for the winter, Mr Howlett will now have to treat both groups of cattle as a single epidemiological unit, bringing the whole lot into 60-day testing requirements. “We’re going to have to test everything twice more in the spring before separating the herds again.”
Following this year’s disease problems and poor beef and lamb prices, it is easy to be despondent about the future of livestock farming, he says. “There isn’t any money in beef or sheep at the moment – it simply isn’t sustainable. The glass ceiling of £2/kg deadweight for beef has held throughout the year – there has been no seasonality at all, which suggests that the market is being manipulated by the meat trade.”
This year, Mr Howlett’s cattle have averaged £665 a head, yielding a gross margin of £20 a head after labour and capital costs. “If we weren’t producing for a premium market that figure would be a lot worse.” His lambs have not fared much better, averaging £43 a head with a gross margin of -£8.25 a head after labour and capital.
“It’s very easy to see all these problems and not be able to pick out a positive future,” he says. “But cereal and milk prices are turning round and I honestly believe red meat prices will follow. The suckled calf trade has risen by £30 a head year on year, which shows that people must have some confidence in the trade.”
Having recently completed a two-week course on The Challenge of Rural Leadership, Mr Howlett is determined to take a positive view of the future. “The course taught me that you have to look at the bigger picture, whatever business you’re in. It is easy to get bogged down in your own problems, but it is important to think about where you’re going on the farm and in the industry as a whole.”
After reconsidering his farm strategy Mr Howlett is confident that the business is going in the right direction. “It has reaffirmed our existing plan – to concentrate on what we do best, which is meeting specialist markets with our Welsh Black cattle. We also need to continue to make the most of the farm’s assets, and pay more attention to detail to get the best out of the business.”
This means making greater use of market research to fine-tune the farm’s tepee holidays to meet customer demands, as well as placing a greater emphasis on livestock management to ensure every animal meets the target market, he adds. “We struggle to get the specialist cattle to meet target weights and grades within 30 months. So we need to look at our feeding regime to keep the cattle growing.”
He also wants to manage his lamb feeding and sales better, to finish and sell half the crop by July weaning, to maximise profitability and allow greater flexibility in marketing the remainder throughout the season.
“Short-term, we’ve got high costs and low prices,” he says. “And in the longer term, we have to face bovine TB and bluetongue. But that shouldn’t stop us farming. Despite these challenges we must still understand the market and meet its demands if we are to lead the livestock sector into a brighter future.”