Soaring costs a turn-off

Bowsden Moor Farm
Bowsden Moor Farm

by Nan Macfarlane

LIVESTOCK farmers in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland are counting the cost of the big freeze this winter as prices rocket for fodder and bedding.

Costs are so high that fears have been expressed that vital skills could be lost because young people are being discouraged from coming into farming.

As a result of the weeks of snow at the start of the winter, costs for hay, straw and silage have more than doubled – just as hard-pressed farmers prepare for lambing and calving. “It’s a worry,” said Rob Livesey who has 1,100 ewes at Firth Farm, Lilliesleaf, and is chair of NFU Scotland’s livestock committee. “The fodder shortage is severe.”

An exceptionally cold and wet spring last year resulted in low yields of silage and hay in the summer while the deep snow at the start of this winter meant fodder and bedding stocks were used up long before lambing and calving were even on the horizon.

It means that straw has rocketed in price from £45 per tonne last year to between £90 and £100 per tonne. Hay has soared from just under £100 per tonne to over £200 per tonne while silage has increased from £12 to £25 a bale.

“Straw, silage and hay are big issues for us along with the price of cereals,” said Mr Livesey. “As ewes come near to lambing they need cereals for energy but while last year they were around £100 a tonne they are now about £180 tonne so they have just about doubled as well. All our costs are going up although lambs might still make a reasonable amount. Last year was good after a long period of low prices but this year we are being hit by costs.”

As a result, Mr Livesey said, fewer young people were wanting to come into the industry and there was a danger that shepherding skills would be lost. “There are very low returns so few young people are interested in sheep and we are going to lose our shepherding skills if we are not careful.

“This is an ongoing problem within the industry for all sectors but it is particularly true of keeping sheep. It is a physically demanding job so there needs to be a high degree of satisfaction to encourage people into it, which there just isn’t at the moment.

“It is a worry because if people can’t get staff then sheep numbers will decline. But input costs have rocketed and fuel is a big issue for us as it is for everyone.”

Mr Livesey pointed out that at the moment there are more sheep per head of population in the Borders than anywhere else in the country while numbers are also high in Northumberland.

“We probably have some of the best stock in the world in this area but we need to maintain the skill base to keep the stocks up.

“Supermarkets buy a lot of lambs out of this area because of the quality of our stock and we want to maintain that.”

Another problem is the amount of paperwork now involved in keeping sheep. “It requires a huge effort to stay the right side of the legislation as we have got to keep much tighter records of individual sheep,” said Mr Livesey. “They all need to have records kept for the whole of their lifetime instead of keeping records of a group of sheep as before. The penalties for not doing it are severe as you can lose your subsidy if you don’t come up to the mark.”

At Quixwood, near Duns, John McFarlane, who keeps 1,700 breeding sheep and 700 suckler cows, said the rise in costs had been “dramatic”.

He said their stocks had been depleted by having to feed the sheep for six weeks longer than normal because of the hard winter. “Costs are a worry,” he said. “Fertiliser, for example, has seen a rise of around £120 a tonne and we are really noticing that.”

However while lambs are still getting a good price at market the same is not true for cattle, even though farmers are being hit by the same high costs.

Robert Neill, who has 300 cows at his farm, Upper Nisbet, near Jedburgh, pointed out that cattle are more costly to keep than sheep while prices for the end product have dropped below what they were 18 months ago.

He is about to start work on calving and is worried about the rising prices.

“Fuel costs are hitting us as well and we are getting less for cattle than we were 18 months ago,” he said. “It costs around £450 a year to keep a cow at the present time and we are sometimes struggling to get that back. What we need is an early spring so we can get them out and a decent, growthy summer so we can replenish fodder stocks.”