This month Roger Evans reflects on the devastating effects of protracted low milk prices, and wonders with food prices low and electrical power in demand whether we won’t all be growing for the digester market shortly.
You, and certainly I, probably spend a lot of time wondering when this dairy farming recession will end. And when it does eventually end, where will we be as an industry, and more importantly what sort of state will our individual businesses be in.
Because it is a recession we are in and its effects are there to see, all around us. I will always remember some of the things my wife’s father told me. He was a young man in the recession of the 20’s and 30’s.
He told me that when he moved to the rented farm where he ended up, that at the same time he had the chance to take five other farms to rent and all of them were rent free for the first year. He told me it was quite common to go to Welshpool market in the spring to buy some beef weanlings, to keep them for two years, and then sell them on for less money. And that the only way it ‘worked’ (which is another way of saying how they survived) was by being almost entirely self-sufficient. Buying anything would have been with extreme caution.
They grew their own power (horses), and the only way they could pay the rent was by catching rabbits. They are extreme examples of where we find ourselves today, but they are examples which indicate we are heading in that direction, and if we are to survive there is a lesson to be learned there and a philosophy that we may well have to adopt.
Seven years ago I bought a Limousin bull from a friend and, although we’ve moved that bull on now, I’ve bought a 12 monthold replacement from the same man. I’ve bought a similar bull out of a similar cow for exactly the same money. This sounds ok, and it probably is for me, but it isn’t really is it? It’s no good for him.
Years ago I used to go to a lot of farmer meetings and some of my journeys would take me into areas of the country which are best described as the south Midlands. Several times I met farmers who had the use of summer grazing off people who weren’t farmers but who had bought farms. They could have the grazing for free just as long as they kept it tidy and cut the hedges.
That sort of thing was unheard of around here and I never ever thought we would see it. There’s too many sheep about for one thing. Around here you can get sheep in your fields even when you haven’t let any out. I haven’t been outside yet today but I know there’s probably sheep on one of my grass fields and sheep in my winter barley, and I haven’t got any sheep.
Not far from here I know of three adjoining farms which have been bought by the same person apparently with money that didn’t come from agriculture, and they were not bought for farming reasons. Looks as if we are heading the south Midlands way. I drove past one farm yesterday and even at this stage of the year there is no stock in the fields. I fully expect that there will be sheep there before long, probably at the cost of cutting the thistles and keeping the hedges tidy!
Auctioneers tell me letting grass keep has been very difficult this year and that they’ve not had bids on some land. But that’s on land that is only for grazing. Arable lets are still making good money. However it’s not farming, at any rate not proper farming, that is driving arable rents up. The demand is driven by the need to feed digesters. I’ve been saying for years now that anything that could be fed to livestock could also be used to produce power, and just as soon as producing power becomes more profitable than livestock farming, that is where that food will go. And that is where it is going and that is why we are seeing, around here, a two-tier value for land. Land that is only suitable for grazing and land that you can plough.
I sold some calves yesterday. We have started to specialise in producing strong calves which will drink high cell count milk. Calves remain a good trade. Yet everywhere I read about impending trade agreements that will see more beef imported from North and South America. When all that starts, and it is only starting because politicians think that the beef it brings will be cheaper, what will that do to the value of calves? And there are things going on with beef production in America, things like the use of growth hormones and animal welfare, that will only hasten people down the vegetarian route.
It’s not for me to depress you with all this talk of recession. I’ve always tried to tell it as it is, or how I see it. Dairy farming is fine, you grow your crops and tend to your livestock as best you can. You enjoy that, you always have.
Just don’t open any post and don’t answer the telephone!