Landlines by Halidon

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Remember the advice that “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all”? If we extended that thought to the weather, conversation round the country would have been almost at a standstill in the past few weeks of this miserable summer and early autumn.

That would have been particularly true on farms as harvest has become wetter, muddier, and later and conversations, already terse, became confined to the essentials. It’s never quite clear whether mishaps and breakdowns become more frequent in bad weather or only seem to, but the end result is the same – tensions and frustrations increase and bad temper and bad language surrounding them can rival what we’ve seen happening in Rugby World Cup matches.

There have been isolated, to use the jargon, “windows of opportunity” such as a couple of days of blue sky and sunshine in the middle of last week when farmers and their staff took full advantage of modern massive combines to whack down large acreages of grain as fast as possible.

But generally for several weeks now, in spite of my hopes for a gloriously belated September, we’ve had the dull, humid weather with intervals of heavy rain that make any harvest a misery and the drying of any grain that has been harvested an expensive necessity. Trying to bale dry, bright, straw has been almost impossible. There is also a forecast, at time of writing, of gales to give standing crops a shaking and add to the gloom.

On the plus side, grain prices for crops not under contract are high. But even further on the downhill slide, the more harvest is delayed, the more likely eventual crop quality is to suffer.

And not only grain. Silage-making this summer wasn’t easy, but compared with the efforts of those who still try to make hay it was a dawdle. Whatever acreage of hay was attempted in the Borders and north Northumberland this year, I’d bet there will be less next year, except perhaps in designated conservation areas where cutting grass in late summer for hay is seen as better for wildlife, such as ground-nesting birds, than earlier cuts for silage.

That might be true, but waiting for hay to be dry enough to bale in mid-September – as in a couple of conservation area fields I saw at the weekend – is not a happy state of affairs. I don’t know how long the grass had been cut or if and when it had been turned, but the swathe was brown and weathered on top and green underneath. It’s going to need a lot of the sunshine that has been in short supply for months to have any chance. Good for the birds, though.

As expected after a good year for sheep farmers and recent high to record prices for breeding stock such as ewe lambs, the overall average price at Kelso ram sale rose last Friday for virtually the same number sold as in 2010 – this year’s new record sale average was £649 for 4457 sold, compared with £622 for 4516 last year.

Cloaked by that average, however, were the facts that about 10 per cent of rams catalogued for sale were unsold and that a complete analysis of all sales would show – I don’t doubt some dedicated sheep breeding anorak is already on the case – that the average for quality rams was probably nearer £1,000 and that the average for poor quality rams that shouldn’t have been there slumped.

That gap was so apparent that it’s almost tempting to use the auctioneers’ cliché that “Good sorts sold well, plainer sorts more difficult to cash.”

But I’ll resist the temptation while noting the other fact apparent from the sale: that recorded rams with good index ratings were in demand and made higher prices than the average.

Talk about music to my ears? It can only be good news for the future of sheep farming if hundreds of commercial breeders at Kelso last Friday recognised that a recorded ram with good index ratings for essential production factors relating to carcase quality is a better bet than one with semi-mythical indicators such as “grand bone”, “a good head” and “breed character”,

The revolution hasn’t exactly started here, because dozens of forward-thinking sheep breeders have been trying to get the message over for years that any animal characteristic that can be measured and assessed and compared is far more use in breeding what is wanted than relying on eyesight and whether an animal conforms to breed type – a definition that has itself always been open to fad and fancy anyway, not to mention ludicrous fine detail such as the number of white hairs permissible on a black nose. Or is it vice versa?

Rod McKenzie of the Scottish Sheep Strategy Group said that more and more farmers are now recognising the value of performance recording for sheep.

Some of us who have been arguing its value for more years than we care to think about might say “... and not before time”.

But I won’t. I’ll simply note how glad I am that we might be in sight of the promised land.