Opinion: Brexit uncertainty makes breeding choices tricky

April is the time of year when I cast my eye over our group of home-bred, two-year-old pedigree Sussex heifers.

Which ones to put to the bull and which ones to send to our fattening marsh (and therefore greatly reduce their life expectancy)?

But, in such uncertain, Brexit-dominated times, should I retain any heifers for breeding this year – given that, on our extensive organic grass-fed, slow-grow system, their first progeny won’t be ready for slaughter until the summer of 2022?

See also: 6 ways to reduce suckler herd costs

The government has already announced that, in the event of a hard Brexit, the existing EU import tariff of £152 per 100kg of beef will be reduced to £80.24.

However, given the rhetoric at Westminster, whatever sort of Brexit we eventually end up with, it seems safe to assume that a UK government – of any political colour – will pursue a cheap food objective as an obvious “benefit” of leaving the EU.

My Sussex heifers tend to weigh about 320kg on the hook at 28 months of age. So, as a cut of £71.16 per 100kg in the beef import tariff will probably cut her value by £229, does this leave my suckler herd with a future?

My grandfather, a lifelong dairy farmer, never had much time for the economics of suckler beef production, describing it as a “gentleman’s profession” which involved “taking money out of one pocket and then putting it back in the other”.

But at least that suggests that the enterprise could expect to break even. Does a post-Brexit, WTO-rules trade environment suggest that UK suckler beef can even expect to achieve that?

Certainly, my grandfather didn’t have to contend with the time-consuming administration that comes with a modern suckler herd – the individual cattle passports that have to be applied for, the two eartags kept in all animals at all times, and the detailed records of births, deaths and movements off and on farm that have to be kept.

For a beef farmer like me in a bTB endemic “annual testing parish”, there is also the constant spectre of a bTB breakdown and the task of 60-day rolling tests until the herd goes clear.

As I am finding out to my cost, even if my herd goes clear with a bTB test (which it has done for the past two years), reactors found in a neighbour’s herd quickly drag me into an emergency “radial test”.

Even before Brexit and any tariff reductions, beef profits are hard to come by. Nationally, liveweight cattle prices are well below £2/kg, with one auctioneer quoted in Farmers Weekly recently as saying “I think this year is a watershed – I can think of quite a few people who aren’t going to sell cattle any more”.   

All this suggests that the smart thing to do would be to retain no heifers for breeding this year and allow my cow numbers to start to decline through ageing and natural wastage. But that is not what I have decided do. 

Oxendean Nora 2nd must go the bull (I have not bred a finer-looking heifer in the 40 years I have run a suckler herd) and the same applies to nine of her cohorts.

Loath as I am to admit it, like most of my own farming cohort, I am too much a vocational farmer for my own financial good.

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