Bluetongue poses marketing problem for top breeders

Bluetongue has had a huge impact on livestock values and nowhere has this been felt more than by farmers with high value stock in the protection zone.

It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the problems the livestock industry has faced over the last year, but according to Charles and Sally Horrell, it’s time to put all that to one side and think about the future.

Although the couple, who run pedigree Beef Shorthorn and Simmental herds alongside a flock of pedigree Hampshire Downs at Pode Hole Farm, Peterborough, were fortunate to escape an outbreak of bluetongue on their farm, they haven’t escaped the problems in terms of movement restrictions and lost livestock sales as a result.

Based on previous sale prices at the Perth bull sales, Mrs Horrell calculates a loss of at least £6000. “We would have taken bulls to the November and February sales, but that proved impossible due to restrictions.

“And yes we could push to market them privately from home, but we’ve made a name for our Shorthorns in Perth and rely on Scottish buyers – commercial buyers in East Anglia simply won’t pay as much for a bull of high pedigree quality.”

Coupled with the loss of bull sales, the couple sell a number of cows every year at Thirsk, again a lost market opportunity which has meant a potential loss of £6000 again, she adds.

“Fortunately we have the capacity to keep those females in the herd and not sell them for a far cheaper price locally,” reckons Mr Horrell.

“We would have also taken a number of heifers to Perth this February, but although stock are now allowed out of the ptrotection zone with a pre-movement test, this decision came after entries had closed. Another missed opportunity which could have yielded £5000.

“And with trade for Shorthorns as strong as it was last week, we could have even sold better than we predicted,” he adds.

With on-going resistance from Scotland to recognise this as a UK-wide problem, the Horrells are concerned Scottish buyers wouldn’t pay as much as they would do normally for cattle coming from protection zones. “We need to be under the same umbrella in terms of marketing. We’ve seen what TB hotspots have done to sales and we can’t allow the same to happen with bluetongue,” stresses Mrs Horrell.

In terms of sheep sales, the couple were fortunate to have sold rams from their pedigree Hampshire Down flock early, but should have sold females last autumn to the value of £2500. Last summer also saw sales of pedigree rams to Romania but, looking forward to potential sales, there are questions over whether vaccination will have an effect on these export markets, she adds.

“We’ve not lost as much as some farmers, but £19,500 is still a big dent. And that’s only going on averages – who knows what could have happened if you added a championship ticket at Perth to the mix.”

Having written to their local MP who promptly wrote to Lord Rooker, the minister sent a reply detailing the need for livestock farmers to have contingency plans for this kind of instance. But it’s not that easy with pedigree breeding, says Mr Horrell.

“The outsider might think the pedigree man is small fry and yes some are, but we’re large scale enough that this is a business not a hobby. We reacted quickly in terms of castrating more male calves to avoid holding over sale bulls and changed diets for those animals no longer forward for sale to avoid wasted feed bills.”

But as Mrs Horrell highlights, one thing that has hit home is the need to review marketing methods in the future. “We’ll be back at Perth and Thirsk once vaccination comes into force, but we do need other outlets in terms of marketing.

“For us we need a venue less vulnerable in terms of distance. Newark Livestock Market has worked hard alongside United Auctions and Harrison and Hetherington and we also have the Bristol Sales Centre, but we need more outlets.

“And unfortunately as many pedigree breeders will tell you, certain sales are renowned for specific breeds. But we’re not immune from further disease outbreaks and the sooner other breeders and buyers recognise that and put fashion to one side the better,” argues Mr Horrell. Coupled with that concern is the uncertain show season, particularly so for the Horrell family as they are heavily involved with organising the East of England Show. “Although the social aspect of showing is what many exhibitors go for, it is a massive shop window, often generating extra revenue from private sales, if we don’t have those it limits our opportunities further,” he adds.

“As a show society the East of England Show is currently going ahead with livestock classes with many of our usual exhibitors planning on entering, but we’re still waiting on confirmation of a vaccination timetable which will give more clarity on what restrictions will be in place,” adds Mrs Horrell.