10 April 1998




Chris Norton

(Norton and Brooksbank)

PREPARATIONS have long been underway at Elm Farm, Skeith, Suffolk, and in the Tetbury offices of auctioneers Norton and Brooksbank.

Hardly surprising, really, as next weeks (Apr 16) dispersal of the 500-head Mendlesham herd of pure British Friesians marks one of the biggest one-day sales ever held.

"A challenge," auctioneer Chris Norton calls it. He has sold big numbers before: Four-hundred on-farm in Hampshire, 300 at the firms sale centre at Penrith, Cumbria – but this is the big one.

"All the same, it is probably better to concentrate the event into one day. A lot of potential buyers may have been put off by the prospect of having to spend two days away from the farm at this busy time of year," says Mr Norton.

"If it was one of the top pedigree herds in the country it would be different. But the Mendlesham animals are very commercial, managed on a low cost system based around loose housing, haylage and limited concentrates."

The decision, meanwhile, was taken to hold the auction on-farm – in what is hardly dairying country – rather than ship the stock westwards because of the big numbers involved and the farms close proximity to the A14.

"Local demand has been limited, with relatively few dairy herds in East Anglia. But there has been interest from around the country. We have had one inquiry from Northern Ireland."

But the auction comes against a background of the lacklustre demand for dairystock. Milk prices have slumped and lower cull cow and calf values have also taken their toll. "There is not a lot of joy at the moment."

One advantage is that it is the beginning of the milk year, says Mr Norton. The autumn used to be the preferred time for a sale 15 years ago, because most herds calved in that season and that was the time when the cows were "close to profit". Not so anymore, with more farmers having moved towards spring calving, dairies paying bonuses to encourage more even supplies and the autumn trade sometimes suffering under the shadow of high quota values.

Also in the herds favour is its age. There are 200 cows, most first-, second- or third-calvers, 150 in-calf heifers and 150 head of youngstock. "They have got a lot of life left in them."

The calving pattern will also be a plus point, with a third of the cows due in April, May or June, and people now increasingly looking to buy such relatively cheap to produce summer milk.

"People will be out looking for cheap milk to put in the tank at this sale. Buyers may not be prepared to pay a lot, but they will be looking for cows. At the recent Croxdenabbey sale, for example, there were plenty of people bidding. The price they bid to may not have been a particularly high one, but bidding they were."

A lot of the Mendlesham stock should, therefore, end up making between £350 and £550, reckons Mr Norton. "And from the sellers point of view, anything over the £300 cull value is a bonus."

But it will probably be a far cry from what the top-notch pedigree animals are making, says Mr Norton. Less affected by the post-BSE market slump, they continue to command a big premium over commercial beasts.

At three herd sales this year – Comely, Hemble and Beechbarn – prices topped 5000gns. "The best are making a big premium over the ordinary. It was just the same when milk quotas arrived in 1984 and commercial stock values were on the floor." &#42

Chris Norton says the 500-head Mendlesham dispersal represents a "challenge".

Big dispersals always generate lots of interest, and the Mendlesham sale will be no different.

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