Stormy winter set to cause concern and problems

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

Such incredibly mild weather for this time of year, in fact last Saturday we could have eaten lunch outside in the garden very easily in the warm sunshine if we had thought of it.

The whole autumn has been very warm and figures show it to be the third warmest on record, with only 2006 and 2011 warmer. The doomsayers now predict the wettest winter for decades, which is a bit odd considering that last winter was the wettest winter on record in this country. The Met Office is predicting above average rainfall in December which is likely to bring high winds with it which will mean stormy weather hitting these shores in the next few weeks. They are also predicting a warm December, but with the chance of dryer and colder weather in the New Year.

As farmers we know how important weather is and how it can make our lives difficult or indeed pleasant and profitable.

In some parts of Brazil this year they have suffered the worst drought in over 100 years, which has caused many big fires and hit coffee and sugar production very hard causing shortages. Back in the UK retailers have been hit by lack of sales when it comes to warm clothing and coats due to the warm weather, which shows that the weather has quite an effect on everyone.

Whilst EU farmers are affected by not only falling world markets over the past few months but also the retaliatory Russian ban on imports, it does seem that the Russian people themselves are suffering as a result, and also the huge drop in oil prices has affected their economy. Food inflation is running at around 8% and there have been reports of panic buying. It is unlikely to end for some time as for either side to back down would result in a severe loss of face.

In the meantime dairy prices are continuing to fall in the UK, and recovery looks many months away, towards the end of next year. A meeting in Parliament last week aired the problems faced, but could offer few solutions. We have been talking about volatile markets for a few years as Europe gets closer to world trade, and the effects are not pleasant.

Volatility seems to be affecting most sectors, with beef and cereals showing slight recovery as milk and pigs continue to fall. Horticulture which we hear little about has also suffered greatly with many prices on the floor.

Importing ‘Black Friday’ from the USA has been seen as necessary in order to get shoppers spending; such is the dependence of our economy on retail sales. Hopes were that £6000 per second would be spent, but the media turned the spot-light on the brawling which took place in order to get the ‘bargain’ item secured. Not a pretty sight. In the meantime we see that our grocery market has shrunk for the first time in over 20 years, with Tesco being hit the hardest as takings from Britain’s supermarkets fall from £146 billion to £145 billion. Total sales of food has increased but discounting and ‘brand-match’ are reducing prices overall to the consumer’s advantage.

I spent a day in Cardiff last week discussing how we find a sustainable future for the beef industry, 50% of which comes from the dairy sector. The decline of the suckler cow as farmers struggle to make them pay means that just like Europe it is quite possible that 70% of our beef will come from the dairy sector in the future.

Beef is under pressure in many countries actually as one looks to the USA and see drought issues there and competition from maize grown for bio-fuel; crop competition in Brazil, concerns about rainfall generally everywhere and competition from dairy in Australia and New Zealand over the years.

The suckler cow has a great story to tell the consumer, extensive farming which is pasture based, very high welfare and great quality meat.

The problem is the price of that meat due to the wonderful way it’s produced and the fact that fewer people buy joints of meat these days. Our modern lifestyle revolves around convenience cooking which takes little time, and as a result of that 60% of beef sold is mince. Mince is so flexible, quick and easy, offering a huge variety of meals, and of course all the ready-made meals, restaurants and fast food outlets, which all use huge amounts of mince.

Mince is price competitive and that is the second reason for buying it, and not only is mincing suckler beef a travesty, but it is totally uncompetitive.

Many farmers run a few suckler cows with their main sheep enterprise in Wales and England, as the cows improve pasture significantly, but we have seen almost a 20% decrease in the number of suckler cow in Wales since the demise of headage payment, despite a huge rise in beef prices. This has been for a number of reasons, the main one being that sheep and dairy are more profitable converters of grass into money, but also the competition of cheaper meats for sale, notably chicken. Now beef producers will tell you that chicken is pretty tasteless compared to beef, but they miss the point. Chicken has very little or no waste, it is cheap to buy and has good texture, and although it often has little taste, it is a very good ‘sauce-carrier’, and that is how it is usually presented.

However, we did arrive at some agreed measures which should assist in arresting the decline of beef production, not only in Wales but in the UK as a whole. Farmers need to generally do better, they need to look to the dairy industry to see how knowledge transfer works, consider forming study groups, and look at their calving interval.

The best beef farmers are very very good and others need to learn from them, understand the market, improve margins, increase cow efficiency by lifting calf weights and lowering costs of feed by utilising grass and forage far better. Genetics have a part to play for the future, as does new technology, and disease control must be improved, but a difficult subject in bTB areas of course.

Processors and retailers need to collaborate with farmers and give them the right signals which need to be positive. Reward the right product, put in place an objective carcass analysis which includes meat yields and good feed-back to producers rather than the current out of date grading system with its list of penalties. Provide a shared strategic vision, investing in genetics and welfare for the next 20-30 years, and look at new product development to provide ‘meal solutions’ for today’s consumer and for the future. Beef is such a treat, a great tasting superb product and we need to market it as such together as an industry.

Why do politicians go to the courts when if left alone their ‘problem’ would quietly be forgotten? History tells us that they usually end up in jail, or financially ruined if they seek the power of the law-courts to prove their innocence, and yet again it has happened with ‘Thrasher’ Mitchell.

A simple argument about which gate he could use with his bicycle has ended with one police officer in jail, several others sacked and he himself out of the Cabinet and now with huge bills to pay and a possible challenge to his seat. It must be in their genes?