2019 marches inexorably on, already mid October and the tups are in (or ours are). Considering the season that we have endured, particularly the last couple of months spent chasing grass around, the ewes have surprisingly, gone to the tup in remarkably good condition, although with the prospect of rapidly tightening grass supplies I did decide to wean a bit earlier this year (10 weeks) simply to afford the ewes a little more recovery time.
A strategy that, I’m sure, more by luck than judgment, appears to have reaped its rewards this season, the majority of ewes have gone to the tup at about body condition score (BCS) 3.5 with a few hovering closer to 3, right on target for tupping. With a move to some fresh grass, (hay ground) a fortnight before the tups joined the ewes provided a beneficial boost. Supplementary feed for the tups has provided benefits with them joining the ewes looking fit and well (BCS 4) more than ready for work.
With all routine work carried out well before the tups went in, we just need to provide a bit of TLC through tupping and the first few weeks of pregnancy to ensure successful implantation and a good lamb crop. Early signs are good, with 80% of ewes covered by the first seven day crayon change (a benefit of years of leaving the tups in for just 21 days, which has selected against the slower breeders, one of the advantages of maintaining a closed flock). All being well we won’t get too many returns and this should result in a nice tight lambing.
We have done all that we can to ensure a good lamb crop for 2020, but as with everything sheep related, the outcome is still uncertain, scanning will give us an indication, but it will not be until those lambs hit the ground next spring that we will have any degree of confidence in the outcome.
As a biological process, largely carried out at the mercy of the weather sheep production will always entail a degree of uncertainty that is what makes it both so interesting and infuriating at the same time. We do whatever we can to diminish the level of uncertainty, that is what good flock husbandry is all about, but there will always be some things that are beyond our ability to control.
The weather leaps immediately to mind, the previous two years providing abundant examples of how capricious the UK weather can be. In any normal year we would however be able to put ewes to the tup with some degree of confidence, albeit not a perfect understanding, about the marketing environment that we will be selling our lambs into, whether they are finished, stores or breeding stock.
Markets do and will always fluctuate, globilsation has tended to introduce a greater level of volatility; and we now have, somewhat reluctantly, become accustomed to making decisions based on imperfect knowledge. There are, however, for the most part, sufficient indicators to enable us to make reasonably well informed decisions. This year is something completely different, in as much as, we are currently faced with the situation where we are making decisions about future events where there is absolutely no certainty about future outcomes.
This situation is completely contrary to one of the primary rules of marketing, that is, to identify your market before production commences, not always easy for reasons stated above and not something that a significant number of sheep producers (and farmers in general) are particularly good at. All too frequently we are guilty of product disposal (i.e. producing and then looking for a market) rather than considered and orderly marketing.
The nature and processes of the sheep sector requires producers to make current decisions (When to tup? How many to put to the tup? What tups to use? Whether to tup at all? etc), concerning events that will occur in six to 12 months down the line. It does not matter if you are producing finished lambs, store lambs or breeding stock, events over the next month or so will almost certainly have a dramatic impact on criteria impacting the future marketing environment for your sheep and all sheep in the UK: Will there be a demand for our sheep? What will be the size of the market? Where will that market be located? What sort of sheep (type/size/level of finish) will be in demand? How will supply equate with demand? What will be the impact on prices? What will be the pattern of demand? What will be the level of support available to producers? Will there be additional support? What will be the format for any additional support measures? etc.
When you read this we should have some surer ideas of the reality of Brexit. In actuality, regardless of the precise nature of our exit from the EU, we will almost certainly see a dramatic transformation of most of these criteria throughout the forthcoming sheep production cycle; the extent and impact of the changes, are, once again, as yet undetermined and uncertain. What is certain is that, unless there is a comprehensive shift in policy, which is exceedingly unlikely, considering the number and size of the egos at stake, it will not be business as usual.
The government has eventually fashioned some, albeit largely meaningless, attempts to encourage industry (including agriculture) to be Brexit ready, but without some sort of sensible indication as to what form or shape that Brexit is going to be, those attempts are yet another glorious waste of public resources.
The agricultural industry, the sheep sector in particular is currently very vulnerable, at grave risk of being sidelined in the preparations for Brexit, even Theresa Villiers, the Environment Secretary, does not seem to be particularly concerned about the potential problems facing the industry, the impact of tariffs (both import and export), maintenance of production standards, strategic food supplies, etc. have all been identified as particularly challenging aspects of Brexit.
In spite of this, however, she has, since her appointment in July, failed to attend any of the weekly no-deal planning meetings held with representatives of the food and farming industries, apart from one fleeting visit. Agriculture could, potentially, be the sacrificial lamb, in pursuit of post Brexit trade deals, a move that could have a devastating impact not just on sheep production and farming, but on the rural economy, on rural communities, tourism, conservation and the environment etc. As individuals we have no significant voice, but collectively we do, it is therefore so very important that we all support those bodies that represent us and our collective interests; the National Sheep Association, NFU, TFA, CLA, etc. they are our voice and we need to make sure that they are heard; and don’t forget your MP; MP’s are elected to represent the views of their constituents, not to further their own career ambitions, an occasional reminder of this obligation may be welcome and certainly required for some. Even if we do leave the EU with a deal (currently uncertain and details unknown), we will only have one year of frictionless trade with the EU, come the end of 2020 and the end of the transition period our access to European markets is an unknown quantity. One year in which to renegotiate trade deals and establish new markets for our sheep exports.
N.B. On a positive note, the EU has recently approved the UK’s status as a third party exporter, which means that we maintain the ability to export livestock and meat to the EU, subject to relevant border checks and inspections, and of course, appropriate tariffs. On the down side, the Government is persisting with proposals to ban live exports.