A shortage of cash, due to restricted calf sales after a run of false positive TB readings, led Halton Farms to stage the first on-farm TB-restricted sale in the north west of England. Laura Bowyer reports.
Milking 430 cows at Chance Hall Farm, near Congleton, Cheshire, Tom and Karen Halton have had a bad run of false positive TB test readings.
The farm has been down with the disease twice, the most recent was this January, but came clear on November 5. Prior to that, they were down with TB for a period two years ago, again due to a false positive reading.
Mr Halton says: “Although we have only just become clear of TB, in theory we have never had it. We had a false positive reading this time and the same thing two years ago.”
When a buyer came to the farm to look at the couple’s animals he advised them to hang on to them because they were too good for the money he was offering for TB stock.
The couple believes TB, or in their case the false positives, cost their business £40,000-£45,000.
“At the time we had 1,000-head of stock, and the movement restrictions were putting us in a bad cash position,” says Mr Halton.
Usually selling calves in Chelford, Mr and Mrs Halton spoke to Jonny Dymond, auctioneer at Wright Marshall, who suggested the on-farm sale (having previously organised one in the South West on Bodmin Moor).
The couple says the on-farm TB sale was essential for their business. They thought they would have got lower prices in an orange market and were bursting at the seams with youngstock.
Mrs Halton adds: “TB crippled our business. We had an increased outflow of cash because of the extra costs of keeping the stock and less cash coming in because of lost calf sales, which really are our bread and butter.”
Cheshire is in the TB ‘edge area’, meaning farms have to be tested every six months and have two clear readings after TB is detected, or thought to be found, on the farm.
Due to lost revenue, the downturn in milk price and the looming rent payment, the Haltons say they either had to have the sale or look for ways to inject cash into the business. It was the sale which got the go ahead.
“In having our own sale we were open to more buyers because Welsh buyers cannot bid in orange markets, but they can on-farm,” says Mrs Halton.
The sale was attended by 11 pre-registered buyers along with an audience of 30, made up of people who were interested in having a sale of a similar nature or those thinking of setting up an approved finishing unit.
Mrs Halton says: “The only thing we really had to do was take care of bio-security procedures, including foot dipping, signage and parking. We also penned everything up with Jonny and helped decide the sale order. Defra dealt with the licencing and Jonny sorted everything else out, including all promotional activity.”
The trade was strong on the day and the Haltons say bids were only down about £10 per head on what they would expect in a normal sale.
Feedback was positive, says Mrs Halton: “Everyone thought it went well. Defra, the auctioneers and Sue Ridout, the county’s Animal and Plant Health Agency [APHA] lead officer for bovine TB and animal welfare, were all very positive.
“APHA actually thought the sale was better than taking stock to a market because animals were not rubbing noses with other holdings’ stock and there was altogether less stress. Buyers could see where animals were coming from.”
Due to the selection of cross-bred and different aged animals up for grabs, the sale attracted a wide range of buyers from Herefordshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Powys.
After six weeks of planning, the sale was only an hour in duration. Proceedings commenced at 12.30pm and the last load of cattle left the farm at 4:30pm, although buyers had seven days to collect their purchases.
Mr Dymond says: “There was competitive bidding for everything.
“As TB becomes more prevalent, it is likely these on-farm sales will become more commonly held. If the Government will not deal with the source of the problem, we need ways to trade around it. But the movement licencing for these sales is so difficult to obtain.”
Reserves were put on the animals and although some bids did not reach these targets, interest was shown after the sale and everything went except for the Hereford crosses.
Mrs Halton says: “There just was no-one who wanted Herefords on the day.
“We have to accept we are going to be a farm faced with TB. It is going to change our business moving forward. When we were down with the disease, we thought there was no way out. But the sale was so positive, the disease does not seem so scary anymore.”
The Haltons say the on-farm sale has given them the confidence to go to a regular orange market in the future because they now feel sure in their stock to reach desired values.
“We had not sold any stock when we were down with TB before,” says Mr Halton. “We did not know what to expect in the sale ring.
“TB brought the value of the stock down and it also meant we were selling things at the wrong age. However, we still achieved prices of up to £480 for a pen of five British Blue steers of five months old.”
Mr Halton expressed his views on the disease which is affecting farms across the region. “There are more and more regulations put on farmers because they can control us, but not the wildlife. In my eyes, all we should do is lift the protected species title from the badgers for a year, which would be of no cost to the Government.
After exiting a partnership with their landlord, consequently loosing 80 hectares (200 acres) and selling 200 cows in the process, Mr and Mrs Halton ‘took charge of their own destiny’.
Now renting the farm on a 25-year Farm Business Tenancy, the pair feel they have something to work towards and believe their future has been made more secure.
Getting out of the partnership was the best thing to have happened to the business, says the couple. Mrs Halton adds: “We are now investing in our own business, with 22 years of farming here in front of us to make the most of.”