Weather and CAP reform are big worries

KNOCK-ON physical and financial effects of appalling 2012 weather and what might happen this year are only two of many challenges facing farmers a large-scale farm manager said this week.

Sion Williams told Merse Agricultural Discussion Society at Duns that the Buccleuch 
Estates in-hand farms he manages broke even in his November to October 2011-12 accounting year before subsidy payments were added.

A slight profit before subsidy was a good result. But it would be difficult to repeat in 2012-13, he said, not least because of the effect weather has had on livestock performance, past and 
future, and rising costs.

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But, he said, there are several other reasons to worry about future prospects for the 8,800 acres of grouse moor and upland he manages in the Borders with its 4,000 ewes and 400-cow beef breeding herd.

Change to the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP) is high on his list of worries. Returns on sheep – based on 2,700 Blackface hill ewes and 1,300 cross-breeds that include Highlander, Texel, Romney and Primera breeding aimed at improved fertility, conformation and survival – should keep him in, or above, the top third of producers.

But prospects for suckler cow beef production “from 2014, 2015 or whenever CAP change is agreed” are much more doubtful: “No-one can make a living from sucklers without subsidy.”

Scotland, he suggested, already has a small enough voice in EU political arguments about future support arrangements for farming and he did not want to get involved in the independence debate: “But a small voice keeps hinting to me that it might be the wrong move for farming.”

A more immediate concern was the possibly imminent “huge shake up” for farming and forestry on health and safety. Reducing accidents and fatalities in an industry second only to construction as the most dangerous in Britain was obviously vital, he said. “But meeting some imposed safety standards is a nightmare for management and hard on staff as well as expensive.”

Farmers should be braced for tougher Health and Safety Executive action, he warned.

Getting and keeping good staff can also only get more difficult, especially on livestock farms. At present there are 12 staff, including Williams and a poultry manager for 32,000 free range hens, three shepherds and one apprentice, a job that the estate sees as a vital investment in the future.

And because sheep management is based round grouse moor shooting and the estate hosts more than 15 school visits a year, each shepherd looks after about 1,300 to 1,500 ewes, low now by some standards.

He said: “But it’s about area they have to cover more than numbers. We have a two-year-old quad bike that now has 32,000km on the clock. How long can we get shepherds willing to do that?”