Sunday, November 18, 2007

Playing politics

Two stories hit the farming press this week which illustrate the total futility of farmers trying to play politics. Market prices, that is prices achieved in an auction, and on which a vendor can turn his back and take stock home, are the benchmark for most livestock trade - and for Defra's infamous tabular valuations. So what happens if the rug is pulled on the system?

Howard Walsh writing in Farmers Guardian, entitles his piece Movement Restrictions Strangling Trade and pulls no punches when he reports an auctioneer in the SE as saying:
Bluetongue (BTV) and foot-and-mouth rules and regulations will kill the UK livestock industry before the diseases do.

The piece explains the stranglehold such restrictions have on a livestock farm's ability to trade its stock at the 'market price', if that market is no longer there. Downward pressure feeds onto deadweight retailer prices, and as auctioneers all over the country are finding, the consequences are devastating. Current movement restrictions also threaten the markets’ longer term viability.

While attention is concentrated on the markets of the SE, the zoning of the area means that up to 150 km inland, markets are affected, with regular trade stifled.
Vendors are worried not only that they would not be able take stock home in the event of prices falling short of expectations, but that buyers are restricted anyway by the same boundary and movement controls.

York Livestock Centre is in this position and according to principle James Stephenson the fact that the Murton centre is just inside the zone, is decimating trade, particular store stock.
“The cattle finishers are being starved of store stock and this part of the country is, you could say a meat basket but the abattoirs will find next year that the stock are just not there. We are really concerned about the situation and if something is not done soon, then we will lose some auction marts

Livestock Auctioneers Association executive secretary Chris Dodds was not optimistic about the situation, describing a two tier market which has developed either side of the zoning line:
“There is a massive difference in livestock values being achieved either side of the line.”

We have touched on the problem of zoning risk-based trading for TB before in this post and this week, ironically on the same page as the piece above, Farmers Guardian reports that Farmers have requested just such movement restrictions for Tb.

Have they? We haven't. In fact we have pointed out many times the futility of such measures, all of which have been tried before - and all of which have failed. But the TB Advisory Group, our old friend T-Bag, in the shape of chairman Peter Jinman have proposed zoning risk based trading for farms who have had a confirmed breakdown in the previous - well they aren't quite sure, 2, 3 or 4 years? Maybe.

These farms will only be able to sell stock to consenting farms of similar status. No markets. In fact a buyers' market - if you can find a buyer. Zoning per se may find itself on the back burner if rumours of the whole of England adopting a more regular testing regime, rather than the 3/4 year testing areas which operate now, are correct. This would be sensible, as would post movement tests - but we've said this before as well. It is this fixation with extra non-productive cattle controls, offered as a sop to HMG that is worrying.

In a letter to Lord Rooker, Peter Jinman, outlined the groups' proposals and said that he was struck:
".. by the industry’s willingness to consider additional cattle controls’.
Who is this 'industry'? Has anybody told the farmers what you guys are offering on their behalf? Yes? No?

No, we didn't think so.

Mr. Jinman said representatives had made it clear that going down this route without parallel wildlife controls would ‘not be acceptable’. Right. That's OK then. Which tree did these people fall out of? We've been here before in fact almost two years to the day, the 'industry' rolled out a three part plan. Defra got its tabular valuations and preMT - and delivered a new group (T-BAG) and a 'consultation'.

Defra's track record on farmer 'deals' is not good. Duplicitous, mendacious and slippery, it's usually a case of Defra saying jump and a very few egotistical lightweights saying 'how high'? Or in this case 'on who'?

And in this case, the 'who' are livestock farmers who have had the misfortune to have had Tb confirmed on their farms in the last 2, 3 or 4 years. They been under restriction during the outbreak and felt the impact on their businesses, but this bolts on a whole new layer of problems for another 2, 3 or 4 years. (Mr. Jinman's group Defra haven't decided yet)

T- BAG kindly explain the bones of what they have offered to Government on your behalf:
* Restricting farmers with a recent history of the disease to moving their cattle only to other ‘high risk’ farmers.

* Examining the costs and benefits of increasing routine surveillance.

* Looking at the costs and benefits of greater use of the gamma interferon test.

* Exploring the scope for introducing a risk-based trading, and how it could work.

* Targeted use of post-movement testing.

Mr Jinman said there was no support for ‘zoning’, banning the movement of cattle out of high risk areas, as this would have an ‘unacceptable economic impact’ and would not reflect risk accurately for those farmers who had stayed disease-free.

But there was, he said,
A ‘willingness’ to consider other options, such as risk-based trading. While the details still have to be fleshed out, the broad principle is that farmers would be categorised according to risk, with those that have experienced breakdowns in the past two to four years, for example, categorised as ‘high risk’.
They would be allowed to move cattle to other high risk farms but not to farms deemed lower risk.

So, we have a story that livestock farms in the as the SE, NE and Midlands are described as 'Strangled by the movement restrictions", which they say will destroy more businesses than the diease. But on behalf of every farm which has had a confirmed outbreak of TB in the last 2, 3 or 4 years (Defra haven't decided yet), a small 'stakeholder' group, has offered - " willingly" the man said, er, more movement restrictions, and a two tier market - if any market for such stock can be found at all.

One could say that such ideas show a distinct 'lemming' gene to be prevalent amongst the group.

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