Wool cheque only just covers shearing bills
It has been a busy time for
Ian Duncan Millar at Tirinie
in Perthshire, but cash
rewards for the effort fall
well short of last year.
Allan Wright reports
HILL farming tradition was that the wool cheque paid the rent. This year it has struggled to pay the shearing charges at Tirinie after falling 40% on the year.
"We clipped 386 including tups. These were big cross ewes and all in wool. The cheque was £362 including VAT and the shearing charge was 60p per animal. Last year the wool cheque was £600," says Mr Duncan Millar.
The first lambs were marketed on July 15 through the Highland Glen co-operative marketing group. The lambs averaged 20.65kg and made £36.83 apiece. A year ago, the first lambs were sold five days earlier, were very slightly lighter, and averaged £46.97.
But the 22% difference does not reflect a drop in the value of lamb meat. "It is the total lack of return for skins which is reducing income. At this time last year, the skin was worth £8 or £9.
"Today it is worth 50p but it was October last year before that market collapsed along with the Russian economy. I feel that, although lamb prices are disappointing, they are not disastrous and if we can work away at these levels throughout the season then there will be a modest margin," says Mr Duncan Millar.
Lamb sales and taxpayer support will be all that sustains sheep farming this year. Not only are wool prices on the floor, but cull ewe values in Scotland are down almost 60% on the year.
"I can see four-crop, correct Blackface ewes making no more than £2 or £3 apiece this autumn," says Mr Duncan Millar. But he refuses to be despondent and is reasonably confident that the live lamb price will not collapse to 50p/kg as some pundits have forecast.
The beef side of the Tirinie business is meeting budget forecasts with top grade beef bulls making £1.84 to £1.86/kg carcass weight. "Taking everything into account like the fact that they have been fed cheaply and there has been a BSPS and extensification payment, I am quite pleased. There is no fortune to be made but the beef animals are showing a profit," he says.
But, like many farmers, Mr Duncan Millar has had ear tag losses which delayed the marketing of two bulls a week or so ago when tags came out two days before the consignment was due to go to market.
He is happy that the beef export ban had been lifted but fears that Scotland will not be leading the return to export sales. "A lot of work is going on behind the scenes but the sheer cost of meeting the export requirements makes it impossibly expensive for meat plants. Every avenue is being explored but I think it will be some time yet before we begin to win back export markets."
The seed and malting barley crops are looking reasonably well. "Lack of sunshine is the biggest concern. We have had only three full days of sunshine since the crops came into full ear. But they are standing and not ripening too quickly. What we need now is sun to fill the ears. There was also a hint of rhynchosporium and we went into one field at the end of June with a mix of Amistar and Corbel to check the problem."
Another string to the bow of Mr Duncan Millar is managing the 4650ha (11,500-acre) hill unit of Auchnafree, about half an hour away from Tirinie. The farm runs 2000 Blackface ewes (two shepherds) but is mainly a sporting estate for the owners from Notts.
"I suppose they are absentee landlords, but for four generations the family has adopted a hands-on approach, visiting regularly and taking a keen and active part in the management and wellbeing of the estate," says Mr Duncan Millar.
"I have no problem with that sort of approach. I am their eyes and ears when they are not here and the sensible combination of sheep and grouse works very well. It is creating employment and keeping families in the glen who would not otherwise be there."
He has slight concerns about new land reforms proposed by the new Scottish Parliament. "We have always welcomed tourists, walkers, and ramblers. There is a right of way across the estate and we encourage access by maintaining the track.
"My slight concern is that there may be elements who have higher than reasonable expectations from publicised rights of access. We have an open door policy but we also encourage people to tell us of their arrival and where they are going so that they can be accommodated along with the farming and sporting interests of the landowner," says Mr Duncan Millar.
Meanwhile he is preparing first draw Blackface lambs for the Mediterranean market, and maintaining hill roads and butts ready for the grouse season which opens on August 12.