A huge increase in sheep thefts

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THIS is unusual weather for the end of December - the birds think its spring, and plants seem confused by the warmth, as we head into January and February, the coldest months very often.

I wonder what’s in store? The days should start to extend in the mornings, now that we leave the shortest day behind us.

Not much happening on the farm, as the daily routine carries on from day to day. Everything seems to be going reasonably well, although our cell counts are higher than I would like to see them, with no obvious reason for it.

Mastitis is under control, and if the cell count was consistently high, we could maybe find a solution, but the figures are fluctuating all over the place.

All straw yards are cleaned our religiously every three weeks, not least due to the demand for muck from the bio-digester, and we seem to be doing everything else as far as parlour routine etc: is concerned; bit of a mystery to be honest.

n Looking back at the various sectors in agriculture during 2011, it has been on the whole a good year, with one or two exceptions.

Starting with milk (vested interest and all that!), prices have risen over the year, and dairy farmers are better placed to cope with the much higher input costs on farms.

Looking back at the market reveals that the price rise was well behind in dairy products, and we have been bottom or very near the bottom of the European milk price league for much of 2011.

Just over 10,000 dairy farmers left as we lost another 286 producers (2.5 per cent) in England and Wales, and industry experts predict that a further 5000 will leave the industry in the next ten years.

The performance of those remaining continues to improve, but as processors find themselves with little or no margin, 2012 is going to be an interesting year.

Beef and (especially) sheep have had a good year, and wool is making a comeback after many years of poor prices.

Sheep theft has risen dramatically in 2011, with large numbers taken from fields by organised gangs.

The increase in black market sheep meat has reached worrying levels. Cereal farmers have benefited from higher world cereal prices, although there is tremendous volatility in markets, with overall yields up in 2011 despite the dry conditions in some areas; in turn machinery manufacturers and dealers have had a good year as farmers invest for the future.

Inflation of farming inputs running at around 13 per cent has of course eaten into everyone’s margins, but overall farming income for 2011 was up.

Tesco had a good year, and although the amount spent on food by consumers fell sharply as people’s budgets became tighter and they traded down in the stores, £3.53 billion was made by the retailing giant.

Banks did well too (they need all the help they can get) as agriculture increased its borrowing, and suddenly is not the ‘safe but boring’ sector it used to be, but is now seen as a ‘safe and sound’ sector.

n I hesitate to say that the pig farmer had a better year, but the market for pork has also improved, and the losses on farms have decreased.

The average loss per finished pig for 2011 was £26; this cannot go on, of course.

There are concerns about this next year as by 2013 there should be a sow stall ban in Europe, but 15 countries have already asked for derogation, citing lack of money to make the investment (the egg cage ban fiasco again?) Given that the recession is likely to bite hard in 2012, animal welfare improvements in Europe could take longer as money and the will of politicians are both on the wane.

Retailers at home claim that all pig meat sold in UK is ‘Farm Assured’, but according to our pig producers it is not up to ‘Red Tractor’ (our Farm Assurance) standard. Sweden and Finland comply, but don’t supply the UK (prices too low).

We import from Holland, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Poland. Holland and Denmark claim to be 70 per cent compliant, but the Irish and the Poles are not there; indeed it is said that as well as buying used chicken battery units, Poland is also buying pig stall houses.

Back in 1999 when we ‘volunteered’ to unilaterally ban sow stalls, government of the day said it would be good for the industry and that the retail trade would back higher welfare product.

We have lost 50 per cent of our pig production since then as a combination of supermarket’s unwillingness to pay more, as import competition from other countries took their place on our retail shelves, and some particularly nasty pig diseases hit our herds particularly hard, but are now under control.

Almost all bacon is imported into the UK, as well as most ‘value’ lines of pork.

The British pig is reared for the pork market these days, and much of the imported bacon is actually cured in the UK with imported meat.

It would be good to see proper contracts (that word again) between retailers and pig producers, and just as in the dairy industry, there are some excellent (but very small) examples of such contracts which do allow a few pig farmers to make a profit.

If you compare our systems to Europe, very little straw is used in Europe, and 40 per cent of our sows are kept outdoors. Ninety per cent of our indoor sows are kept on deep bedded straw (which is expensive), whilst 90 per cent of Europe’s sows are kept on fully slatted floors.

The next issue is farrowing crates, where there is divided opinion between those who worry about the welfare of the sow and those who want to protect vulnerable young piglets. Sainsbury’s are currently trialing a ‘360 degree’ crate, which opens out, allowing freedom for the sow and safety for the piglets.

Chatting to pig industry experts, it is interesting to note that there is fear regarding the number of pet pigs kept in this country, possibly being fed swill or scraps of food, and no one really knows where many of them are.

This is a real disease threat to an industry which has spent millions getting its disease health status right, and excellent bio-security is in place.

Looking ahead, the industry needs to invest in buildings and new technology, but lack of profit prohibits this.

Those brave enough to dare think of such an investment are running into planning permission issues with local authorities, which are lobbied by welfare groups.

Just as in dairy farming, we need to get over this issue of size, as we will not be producing much if we are not allowed to compete.

It is highly likely that we could find ourselves looking at imported food only on our shelves (where there is no influence on animal welfare), and those who claim to be welfare activists watching in silence.

They tell us what they are against, but don’t tell us what they are in favour of.

Gwyn Jones