Just as hard in France…

2 October 1998

Just as hard in France…

FRENCH pig producers are facing similar hardships to their UK counterparts, writes Tim Green.

Pig prices recently hit a historic low on the Breton market when they fell to less than 61p/kg.

French farmers are not taking it lying down and have been plaguing the politicians to act. Compared with many other European countries, France is unusual because pig production is almost exactly in balance with consumption and, consequently it does not influence international trading to any great extent.

Low-interest loans

Short-term relief measures have already been introduced, including low interest loans charged at 4.6%. There is a loan ceiling of about £6500 and it should be repaid after the crisis. The government has also suspended social security charges and bank interest repayments.

French producers are also pressing the government to introduce intervention storage for pigmeat and a food parcel operation for Russia. Meanwhile, they are trying to inform the public about their plight with various demonstrations.

One local scheme included confronting passengers arriving at a major railway station with some cheap piglets running around the foyer.

There is no doubt many farmers who had been keen to go into pigs and were refused permission on environmental grounds, will be breathing sighs of relief.

Feed prices

One consolation is that at least feed prices are low. They have been forced down by our record national cereal harvest of 38.5m tonnes. Average yield was 7.7t/ha (3.1t/acre) and with the thousand grain weight up by two points on average.

Consequently, an increasing percentage of home-grown cereals is being used in concentrate feed and it is elbowing out manioc, corn gluten and citrus pulp. The demand for home-grown, rather than imported, ingredients has also been boosted by a growing quest for traceability.

We are doing our best to keep cereals from flooding the market because we are feeding ours to our cows and followers. The cows will soon be moving on to sodagrain for the first time while our soon-to-be-bulling heifers are being tickled along with some hard feed, which helps provide them with minerals and vitamins.

Some of our leaner ewes are also being encouraged to gain some weight while the tups are building up their reserves.

Most of the sheep have been wormed and dipped using organophosphorous, for which no training certificates or other constraints are applicable in France. Our lambs have been put on to some choice regrowths which did not see any sheep last year, so I hope they will finish before they require additional feeding.

The cows have been cheerfully devouring our silage stocks along with the cereals and protein. During the recent dry weather we started feeding maize silage with grass silage to supplement the burnt-out grazing.

Land fried

Some of our grazing land simply fried during the hottest part of the summer and the cows trampled the dried grass instead of eating it. As a result, milk yields nose dived. Some of the grass has been salvaged and silaged along with some set-aside land and will be fed to store cattle that know nothing better and can be kept on a low-quality diet.

Although some recent welcome rain kicked off the autumn grazing, we have allowed the cows, particularly the fresh calvers, to eat as much silage as they need. Their diet of maize and grass silages, plus brewers grains, rolled wheat and a protein blend, is adjusted so the cows clean the trough completely each day and then top up with grazing.

With no grass in August, the cows scoffed all our reserve maize silage and we were forced to cut some new crop early to maintain it.

Despite a relatively low dry matter of about 28% it does not seem to have harmed production even when fed fresh and sometimes a bit warm.

With the return of hot weather we finished silaging the maize, which was drilled first between May 5 and 11 on our stony ground. Odd bits are not as ripe as we would like because of the erratic germination back in spring, but I hope the dry matter will be at least 32%.

Relatively narrow variations in sowing date are showing comparatively big differences at harvest, with some late-drilled maize recording a dry matter in the low 20s.

I have recently been working out the cost of buying a standing maize crop to silage to see if it would be any cheaper. Assuming a grain price of £68.50/t, after taxes and drying costs, and an average yield of 6.05t/ha (2.5t/acre) maize is worth £414/ha (£167/acre) to the grower. Just over 6t of maize grain equates to a silage yield of 11t/ha (4.5t/acre) of dry matter or almost 37t/ha (15t/acre) fresh weight.

Harvesting costs are estimated at £160/ha (£65/acre) with another £100/ha (£40/acre) for transport if the haulage distance is greater than 6km.

Estimated losses

Clamp losses, estimated at 15% need to be considered when comparing maize silage with other feeds, making the total cost to the buyer, depending on contract and transport charges, as high as £775/ha (£313/acre).

Average growing costs for maize (see table) are about £659/ha (£267/acre).

Maize would normally qualify for cereal payments of £221.68/ha (£89/acre) which cuts the total cost to £437.60/ha (£177/acre) against an estimated sale value of £414/ha (£167/acre).

Our first bull calves for this season have been sold at £126 a head. Trade for good calves remains healthy, but prices for second quality animals are well down, with the slaughter scheme setting the base level of £68.42.

An interesting phone call from a friend, who works for the French wool and hide advisory service, has helped explain some of the reasons for our disastrous sheep prices.

France sells 85% of its sheepskins to the Turkish trade, which in turn sells on to the Russian market. Our market collapsed from £5.68 a skin on Aug 20 to 10.5p today.

Skin utilisation

French production is about 500,000 skins a month, so his question was "What is the UK doing with its 350,000 skins a week?"

At a recent meeting of French producers they discussed the options of either destroying the hides, trying to sell at any price to merchants who are prepared to gamble on storage (freezing or salting) and, of course, the possibilities of state help. Answers on a postcard, please.

Maize growing costs

(£/ha) (£/acre)

Fertiliser 100.00 40.48

Seed 103.00 41.70

Sprays 42.10 17.04

Machinery 140.00 56.68

Rent 91.00 36.84

Social security 60.00 24.29

Miscellaneous 53.70 21.74

Financial charges 14.74 5.96

Sub total 604.54 244.75

Own labour 54.74 22.16

Total 659.28 266.91

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