28 August 1998


Why wont pig farmers ever learn?

Twenty-two years ago I did my apprenticeship in pig farming. The pig farmer, looking at me with concern, asked: "Are you sure that you want to farm pigs?"

To my firm "Yes," he retorted: "As long as you realise that when there is one pig too many on the market, there are millions of pigs too many. And it does not matter what type of pig it is."

What was true then, is true now. And it will go on being true as long as mankind eats pigmeat. Pig farmers, whether individual or corporate, never seem to learn. Every time the price goes up, like lemmings they expand their herds without thinking of the consequences.

When the price comes good again, all pig farmers should think before putting extra sows in the system. No individual has the right to start or expand a pig unit, and expect to be paid a high return. Supply and demand always prevail.

Farmers fail to realise that when they borrow money, just to maintain working capital, they weaken their bargaining position. They sell at any price and have lost power.

To be solvent, with surplus cash, and not to be beholden is a strength.

I and my fellow pig farmers are appalling capitalists who never seem to take account of return on capital employed. We borrow from the bank, then pay it back and keep repeating the exercise. How many pig farmers can state that, after many years work, they have managed to invest capital generated from pig farming into other interests?

The same must apply to our European counterparts. Lets get talking, this is an European issue, not just a British one. Who makes the return on capital from our labours? Banks, retailers and caterers.

We are furious with our customers for not fully supporting British quality assured pigmeat, and with justification. But dont forget quality assurance, and the over-supply of pigs, are two different issues, and should be addressed separately.

David Turton

Oast House, Egypt Farm, Rushlake Green, Heathfield, East Sussex.

Dont be easy prey, dairymen

An urban outsider would find it amazing that farmers, who consider themselves hard-headed business people, will argue over 50p on a ton of fertiliser, but do not know what they will receive for their milk in 60 days time. Those who sell direct continually delude themselves that they have a cosy relationship with the supermarkets direct buyers.

They also imagine that the governments inquiry into the abuse of supermarkets buying power will find in the favour of agriculture. But, for the answer, they have only to look at the money which supermarkets, and their associates, donated to the Labour Party before the last election.

Direct sellers in the dairy industry are like a herd of grazing impalas. Nearby, a lion is devouring one he slaughtered earlier. The impalas graze quietly fooling themselves they will not be tomorrows dinner.

If Milk Marque becomes seriously weakened in its negotiating powers, the supermarkets, whose loyalty lies only with themselves and their shareholders, will be looking round for the next meal.

The ghosts of our farming forefathers, who sent their sons off to two world wars while they laboured to feed the nation and farmed through the depression of the 30s, would be amazed. They would be astounded by the perception that the cosy relationship between the direct seller and the supermarket can continue as long as there is a strong £.

One only has to look at the treatment meted out to the pig producers by the Malton Food factory, a subsidiary of Unigate. After producers upgraded their facilities, at great financial cost, to meet farm assured and animal welfare schemes, they have been abandoned for cheap foreign imports. Many face financial ruin but shop prices have not gone down.

Can the herd of impalas turn as a body to show their horns instead of their heels? The destiny of the dairy farming industry lies, as never before, in the hands of the dairy farmer. The collective response over the next few months will be crucial.

Joe Collingbourne

Hill End Farm, Brinkworth, Chippenham,Wilts.

Who gave the world BSE?

I was outraged and confused to hear junior farm minister Jeff Rooker tell BBC News on Aug 12 that "we gave the world BSE."

First, who does "we" refer to: politicans, MAFF, scientists, or feed manufacturerers? As a beef farmer, I believe that it was the politicans who were ultimately responsible for the spread of this devastating disease.

Second, reports suggest that the BSE crisis has cost £3bn but that is a tiny figure compared with the loss to farmers. Farmers have lost more money than they received in compensation. The NFU should make that clear to all concerned.

My beef cast cows, that should be worth between £650-£800, are valued at less than £300 under the 30-month scheme.

It makes my blood boil to think that Mr Rooker may be suggesting that if was British farmers who gave the world BSE. My herd has never had BSE but my livelihood has been crippled by the governments handling of the BSE crisis.

Trevor Ward

Rotherham, South Yorks.

Fond memories of AG Street

What memories your feature (Aug 7) on the late Arthur Street brought back. My father was a great friend of Arthur and when I left school in 1936, I was sent to Mr Street to learn about farming.

My father ran a Cotswolds estate farm with a rent of £2 an acre. He thought I should go to learn all I could about field milking.

Getting up in the morning was the worst part, but I got used to it. After milking we took the churns back to the dairy, where the milk was cooled, then Mr Street, after breakfast, took the milk on a milk round (sometimes accompanied by myself), filling up jugs outside front doors.

I had six months with Mr Street before working with my grandfather in Warwickshire who took in all I could tell him about field milking. He had a large milk round, which grew from Mr Streets field milking.

B W E Heyden

22 Falcon Close, Eagle, Nr Lincoln.

Send for men in white coats

I note that SEAC chairman, Sir John Pattinson, who advises government on BSE, claimed at the NFU agm that "the epidemic was accurately following scientific predictions and would be virtually eradicated by the turn of the millennium." But the so-called accurate predictions of 1741 cases of BSE this year look like being 100% wrong.

According to Prof Lacys predictions, most of us meat eaters should be dead by now. Mystic Meg would have done better than both commentators.

Then scientists got mixed up about genetic potatoes and rats. And junior farm minister Jeff Rooker appeared on BBC1 TV news (Aug 13 at 9pm) to say "we gave the world BSE".

After all that, I think its time we sent in the real men in white coats.

G Bannister

Lount Farm, Colton, Rugely, Staffs.

Is farming next on death list?

"The sun has set behind the hill, Across yon deary moor, When wet and cold there came a boy, Up to the farmers door."

I thought of Grannys bedtime song as the sun set on Jack Cunninghams time as farm minister and his successor Nick Brown took over. Farmers will remember that since the 40s, Labour governments have always appointed ministers who had more than a passing interest in agriculture. Tom Williams, the Yorkshire miner, set up ADAS and the 1946 Agriculture Act. Fred Peart and John Silkin introduced the guaranteed price mechanism and HLCA support. Farmers were well represented too.

I wonder how the new boy will approach his task now that farming is no longer popular with New Labour? Will the country have to wait until we are all hungry again? Previous governments have dealt death blows to the coal, steel, textile and shipbuilding industries. Listening to organic and green lobbies might be environmentally friendly but it doesnt produce food. Industrialists want to produce agricultural machinery and allied industries depend on farming too.

Experienced people are leaving farming in droves. And depending on imported food is a recipe for disaster. If this government is determined to stay in office at least until 2007, it had better address the food issue now.

"To plough and sow, to reap and mow and to be a farmers boy" is the first lesson the new minister needs to learn.

Giles Wynn,

Glenshamrock Farm, Auchinleck.

Get behind this assurance plan

I have been surprised and disappointed by the hostile reception given to the assured combinable crops scheme by so many of your correspondents.

Customer pressure has lead to a number of assurance schemes and producer clubs in the meat sector. And in the milk sector, almost every buyer seems to have a different set of rules. Often it appears that farmers are well down the list of those consulted when drawing up schemes.

The same pressures for assurance are building on the arable sector. Indeed some of the livestock schemes are demanding traceability of feed ingredients.

Furthermore, the government is committed to setting up a Food Standards Agency. The legislation for this is almost certain to be in the next session of parliament. Where satisfactory assurance schemes are not in place, I have no doubt this new body will impose them. Rules will be written by a quango and policed by MAFF and/or trading standards officers, environmental health agencies, etc.

With the combinable crops assurance scheme, we have a unique opportunity to have one national scheme, recognised by all buyers, with rules drawn up with the help of practical farmers. I believe it is in the best interests of all arable farmers to grasp this opportunity and make the scheme a success.

Michael King

Court Farm, Edington, Westbury, Wilts.

Heres hoping ACCS falls flat

The NFU should have strangled the half-baked Assured Combinable Crops Scheme at birth. It should not have promoted it against the wishes of most of the membership. NFU calls for unity are wasted while it continues to ignore its members. I contacted the NFU by e-mail on June 9 stating my feelings about this scheme, and pointed out that if forced to join, in order to sell my grain, I would deduct the money from my NFU subs. I have not received even the courtesy of a reply.

The NFU should conduct a poll of its membership regarding ACCS. If most members oppose the scheme, it should have the guts to make a U-turn. Anyone doing a reasonable job will probably meet 90% of ACCS regulations. Those that are not will fall by the wayside.

Grain merchants come and test our grain and the quality determines the price. It is in all our interests to produce as high a quality product as possible. Anyone who is already doing so has nothing to fear from the Food Standards Agency and certainly does not need the hassle of ACCS.

The only things that are assured by this scheme are profits for the verifiers Checkmate and a lot of hassle for everyone else. As for producing trust, who do they think they are kidding? I gave up trusting this sort of thing about the same time I stopped believing in Santa.

Trust is like respect. It has to be earned and cant be bought from Checkmate. Unfortunately, ACCS commands neither trust nor respect.

I hope if enough farmers stand against this scheme it will fall flat. Meanwhile, I am going to see if my NFU subscription would be better spent by joining the Association of Small Businesses.

Michael Earl

Old Hall Farm, Cotham, Newark, Notts.

Spinning their way to a U-turn

One of the most entertaining spectacles for detached observers of politics, is the degree to which governments can spin-doctor a sitting-on-the-fence policy into a U-turn.

Sadly, from the farmers point of view, judging by the near total media silence, MAFF has got away with such a U-turn on the question of bovine TB. The disease is rising dramatically in the national herd; so much so, it can be explained only in terms of mistested/untraced cattle. And also, cost-cutting longer herd test intervals in the midlands where TB has been absent from badgers and cattle for decades.

Soon after I left the TB Panel I had a conversation with Elliott Morley, then shadow farm minister. He told me on Nov 28, 1995 that badger culling should end because it was a waste of money since it doesnt work but that it might have to be phased in.

Having waited nearly three years for the Krebs pantomime "consultation", it seems that until the reshuffle Dr Cunningham intended to implement Krebs culls "scientifically". That was a half U-turn since it meant a moratorium on the rest of the country.

New minister Nick Brown has already been got at. By the end of a parliamentary question, asked by Mrs Janet Dean, he was determined not to decide Krebs cull squares until October or November. That was a 100% moratorium and a 100% U-turn.

That wouldnt matter, if MAFF had taken the trouble to explain to farmers why the change of mind. An improperly brainwashed MAFF spokesman did tell The Daily Telegraph (June 25) that in the midlands new TB areas: "The reason badger culling was stopped was because there was no evidence that TB in badgers causes TB in cattle".

But theyve been saying the exact opposite for 27 years. Sadly, this will create immense problems for farmers.

Perhaps it is time for farmers to explore court action over the MAFF fudge and, arguably, its legal "negligence" concerning loss of livelihood and earnings.

M Hancox

17 Nouncells Cross, Stroud, Glos.

Cull is a step in right direction

It is great to hear that common sense can prevail in MAFF with regard to the reversing of the ban on badger culls. It should have listened to proper research into the incidence of TB before kow-towing to the small furry animals lobby.

Hopefully, we will not have to wait long for the quiet reversal of the ludicrous ban on beef on the bone. It is hard to carve roast rib of beef without the bone to hold it together. And I, for one, am fed up of trying.

The Prime Minister has appointed a new secretary of state, so isnt it time this new, more sensible philosophy regarding tuberculosis was widened to include the rest of the farming industry?

Let us have a modernisation of the decision-making process and start getting the answers right. It is the peoples decision.

Sue Doughty

7 Malvern Close, Woodley, Berks.

OAS chief sets record straight

I refer to your report (Livestock, Aug 7) on the recent conference at Broomfield College and thank you for the interest shown in organic farming.

Although much of what was reported is correctly attributed to me, it was Milk Marques view that premiums would fall by 50% in the next few years. My view is that "the organic market is substantially under-supplied and there is great potential for growth without the organic milk price being affected".

I do not work for the Soil Association, I am head of the Organic Advisory Service, based at Elm Farm Research Centre, the UKs leading centre for organic farming advice providing a full technical and business service. That includes the only Soil Analysis Service appropriate to organic farmers. EFRC is about to publish the third edition of the Organic Farm Management Handbook which is produced jointly with Nick Lampkin of WIRS.

Anyone interested in converting to organic farming can obtain a day and a half of free advice from the OAS, funded by MAFF.

Mark Measures

Head of Advisory Services, Elm Farm Research Centre, Hamstead Marshall, Near Newbury, Berks.

Time to root out ragwort

Since the spraying of roadside weeds stopped, the poisonous plant ragwort has emerged in frightening proportions.

Although the weed is fatal to horses and donkeys, those with a plentiful diet would probably not touch it. But it is impossible to check every inch of a field of meadow hay which this year is unavoidably late. The result is that ragwort is likely to be inadvertently baled and the dried plant could be fatal.

Our local agronomist informs me that there is a selective herbicide, Agricorn 24D, that should be applied in March or April, which kills the weed before it can re-seed. Each ragwort can produce up to 150,000 seeds which can lie dormant in soil for up to 20 years.

By now, however, it is well in flower and the only solution is to pull it up by the roots and burn it. Once it was illegal to allow ragwort to grow on your property. Whether that is still law, I do not know, but it is important that action is taken, sooner rather than later, by farmers, landowners, common land guardians and council/highways departments.

After speaking to our local district council and highways department, I understand that no action is taken to control ragwort unless a complaint is made by an adjoining property owner.

Root out Ragwort Week (Aug 17-23), launched by the National Equine Welfare Council, will only have been successful if everyone pulls up the weed and burns it.

David Nicholson

Jackdaws Castle, Temple Guiting, Nr Cheltenham, Glos.

Record straight on electronic ID

Your report on electronic identification (Livestock, Jul 24) may cause confusion among producers considering EID to cope with the new regulations on cattle identification and the British Cattle Movement Service.

The critical area for the adoption of EID was an agreement for the communication frequency and number structure for the electronic chip. That was agreed last year by the International Standards Organisation. All EID devices which conform to this standard will be readable for the foreseeable future.

The EU IDEA project aims to assess methods of application in large-scale field trials. When I was secretary of National Cattle Association we encouraged manufacturers to develop EID systems and arranged demonstrations of EID including one for the House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee to highlight the problems of data capture under field conditions.

Boli have been trialed with mixed results. Although good results were achieved with boli administered at an older stage, not many calves have a rumen sufficiently developed at a week old to retain a bolus. The earlier they were administered, the higher the loss rate. Calves would need to be identified by another method (ear tag) until the bolus could be administered. That gives the opportunity for operator error by applying the wrong bolus to the wrong calf.

The migration of implants, raised by Archie Sains, is a red herring but the problem of recovering implants is not. Animals carrying implants would have to be identified by visual means to ensure the device did not enter the food chain. Visual identification would have to indicate in what area the device had been applied.

Producers may elect to apply devices at various locations. Implanting devices would require a high degree of operator training to avoid damage to the animal or the device which we are unlikely to achieve even in the long term.

If a device cannot be read, at whatever angle it is presented, it should not be approved for use.

All identification devices will have to be recovered to ensure that they do not enter the food chain and are not used fraudulently.

The cost of administering and policing a system of EID for reuse would be prohibitively expensive.

Producers who are considering EID as an alternative to visual tags should not delay. Some procurement schemes have already indicated dates after which they will not purchase animals which do not have EID.

Rowland W Kershaw-Dalby

Guffogland, Castle Douglas.

Red clover to boost fertility

Big rises in aid for conversion to organic farming (News, Aug 7) is welcome. But I wish all set-aside land grew red clover rather than rubbish. It would improve soil fertility free of charge.

Blythe Backhouse

Flat 2, 35 Aire St, Goole, East Yorks.

Yields are up, but all not well?

Dr Ramshaw (Letters, Aug. 14) claims he likes his students to "investigate and debate" sustainable farming. What bothers me are the criteria they are supposed to use; scientific or media issues? Reading between the lines, his letter hardly suggests the importance of farmers. Where are these documents describing the loss of hedgerows annually since 1945?

Is river water more or less potable before or after it passes through a city? Why do we hear so much less about humus from the advocates of organic farming now than when I was a student around 1950? Because even they know that you cannot have humus without nitrate leakage?

Does he not know that organic matter always declines under arable management and then stabilises? If all is not well, as he says, why do yields keep going up? Long may they continue to do so if we are to survive financially.

GGA Crisp

Les Mesnil de Benneville, Cahagnes 14240, France.

Branding can hit hide value

A Worcestershire farmer suggests (Letters, July 31) branding instead of ear tags. I would like to remind him that the cattle hide represents, typically from 7 to 12% of the value of the carcass and that any damage to the hide reduces this value.

Although farmers are not paid directly for hide, the price obtained by the abattoirs influences what they can pay for cattle. Through research being conducted by British Leather Councils Leather Technology Centre, the hide and leather trade are exploring methods of encouraging better quality hides through financial incentives for farmers.

The specific advice on branding is that all branding is liable to damage hides, but that use of carbon dioxide is less damaging than other methods. Placing a brand on the hind leg, close to the tail, minimises the area of damage.

Paul Pearson

Director, Hide & Allied Trades Improvement Society, Leather Trade House, Kings Park Road, Moulton Park, Northampton.

No faith in GM approval system

Monsantos latest advertising campaign for genetically modified foods tries to reassure consumers that they are safe because governments around the globe have already issued approvals.

However, this May a coalition of scientists and others filed a suit against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claiming that GM food approval procedures are so inadequate as to violate the agencys statutory mandate to protect public health. The suit challenges 33 GM foods which it says are being sold without adequate safety testing.

In June, Prof Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois drew attention to the exceptionally high levels of a known breast, colon and prostate carcinogen in milk produced using Monsantos genetically engineered BST. The FDA gave BST approval despite tests revealing that growth stimulating effects were induced in adult rats when fed the carcinogen at low dose levels for only two weeks. Two journalists are also suing their employer FOX TV after it required them to suppress a story following pressure from Monsanto.

In July, Dr Shiv Chopra, a Canadian government scientist, filed an official grievance against his employers who have prevented him from speaking out in public about the inadequacies of Canadian GM testing procedures.

Recently the House of Commons has banned GM foods from its own restaurants because of their unknown risks. Is there anyone other than scientists from biotech companies who has any faith left in the GM regulatory system?

Mark Griffiths

Environmental spokesman, Natural Law Party, 75 Fairfield Road, Winchester, Hants.

This marching does no good

The public cannot be swayed with reactionary marches every time prices are "unrealistic". Educate the public that British farmers are the best in the world and the most welfare-friendly.

Supermarkets will follow the power of the housewifes purse. Tell her how it really is, and show her in an-easy-to-understand way, when she has time to listen.

Farming itself moves with the times but leaves its public relations to outmoded systems. Then the industry complains when it does not come through. Employ the best for the best.

The solution is to set up a network of sympathetic farms on the city fringes and put the real message across.Patriotism and truth will win the day.

P Fletcher

4 Northlands, Sheffield, S Yorks.

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