THE calf slaughter scheme should be extended to heifers, says John Pullin.
It is currently open only to male animals between seven and 20 days old. And at a payment of £80 a head, it is "mopping up" nearly all of the black-and-whites and a small number of the beef animals.
"Better," says Mr Pullin, "to open it across the board at a lower payment. Poorer quality beef heifers would not then go into the food chain and those black-and-white bulls that would be worth, say, £70 on the open market – but are now slaughtered – would be reared for manufacturing beef.
"This would allow spending on the scheme to be cut – which the EU is no doubt keen to do – and the quality of beef on the market would also be improved."
The variation in the standard of animals now reared is reflected in finished prices, with a gap of 25p/kg or more between the best and the worst. "A heifer that changes hands for £10 at two weeks old is unlikely to make a good finished beast."
Pressure for reform of the slaughter scheme could also mount following the trend towards dairy, rather than beef, inseminations.
"At the time of the big crash in Mar 1996, everyone was putting their cows to Belgian Blues. With the export trade still buoyant, the best calves were £300-plus and good heifers were £180. But the prices of Belgian Blues have now fallen in line with other stock. (The best at Gloucester on Monday was £205.)
"If the farmer uses a dairy bull, and the calf is a heifer, it can be kept as a replacement. If its a male, it can currently go into the scheme at a guaranteed £80, even if it is a Channel Island breed.
"Opting for a beef breed is fine if you get a decent bull calf – but what if you end up with a second-quality female?"
Cutting the processing payment, meanwhile, would make the finishing enterprise more viable, says Mr Pullin. "The best Continentals are still more than £200 at just 14 days old. Its probably only worth £550 or £600 when its two-and-a-half years old. Females, without any floor in prices set by the slaughter scheme and with no prospect of subsidy payments, are typically worth at least £100 less than the bulls."
The reason that the best calves are still making about 60% of what they were in the heyday of the export trade is because of the tighter supplies. "The calf slaughter scheme has had a big impact and the selective cull has reduced dairy cow numbers. Farmers have been culling hard, too, in view of the requirement for better hygiene.
"A few people have also delayed selling calves until they can get double ear tags. And with milk production currently over quota, some calves are also being kept to use excess milk and avoid super-levy.
"At the bottom end of the market, vendors are discouraged by the current values. At £15-£20, say, for Hereford heifer calves, people just arent prepared to release them at that money."
But dairy producers should, says Mr Pullin, send them through the market, rather than direct to the scheme. "Theres still the scheme to put a guaranteed floor in the values and, if they are good animals, competition from rearers will boost bids above this."
John Pullin: Heifers should go into the slaughter scheme.
Most black-and-white bull calves are destined for the slaughter scheme, with just a few bought for rearing.