By Simon Wragg
A CULL scheme cannot come soon enough for Scottish shepherds who start their main ewe sales this week.
But many producers would prefer the removal of “unnecessary” meat charges as a surer way of boosting prices.
United Auctions Donald Morrison said many producers have been warned not to bring small or lean ewes, such as Blackfaces, to sales.
The first of these have already traded at below a £1 a head, while even fleshy Mule or Continental-cross ewes are taking bids between £4-£7 each.
Worst hit will be islanders and crofters who face transport costs of £1.60 a ewe before market commission is deducted.
For many, this will outweigh any bid from the ring.
“Typically better ewes were trading at £20-£25 a head last year,” said Mr Morrison.
“Not only are we going to see a drop in income of at least £12 a head, but valueless ewes held on farms are taking up valuable space.”
While eagerly awaiting news of a cull scheme, removal of a proposed 400,000 ewes would do little to firm the market, he added.
“Producers would sooner see the government cut unnecessary meat charges for the removal of spinal material as a way of boosting values.”
Ewe processors suggest it is often cheaper to buy imported frozen supplies at 65p/kg (30p/lb) than bear the cost of transporting splitting the carcasses of the poorest ewes.
Farmers Weekly has learned that one major abattoir has processed a batch of Welsh hill ewes to assess costs and see if the end product could compete with imports.
Paying £3 a head, the 18.3kg carcasses were processed into boxed lean meat.
Accounting for a margin of £5 a ewe for the processor, the cost of the product was £1.30/kg – well above the reported imported price.
An industry source confirmed that even if ewes were supplied free, the end product would still cost between £1-£1.10/kg.
Imported supplies could still be cheaper even with removal of the processors margin.
“These small ewes are a real problem,” said a spokesman for the British Meat Federations sheep group.
Auctioneer John Jones of Welshpool said taking the poorest ewes out of the market is essential to boost beleaguered prices for the more meatier sorts.
And processors agree there is still a market for Mule or Continental-cross ewes.
As an indication, cull values at Welshpool firmed slightly as producers held back poorer types in anticipation of a disposal scheme being announced.
That helped the average move from £6.48 a head at the end of August to £8.20 each last week.
But many smaller ewes are trading at under £2 each. Once commission of £1 a head, 61p levy and VAT is taken away, producers are getting cheques for about 9p a ewe.