Landlines: There are differences in what farmers say and what they do

This is D, V or R day – decision, voting or referendum depending on your preference - on Scottish independence. Or not. By tomorrow we will know the result, the only certainty being that whichever way it goes life, farming and business for all of us on either side of the Border will never quite be the same again.

Having got “thought for the day” out of the way, one of the biggest cross-border events in farming took place last Friday at Kelso when 4721 rams changed owners for just under £3 million at an average price of £684 and a top price of £35,000. The rationale, or lack of it, of the top price is of no interest to me, or to most commercial sheep farmers, but the new overall record average for all breeds of £684 is.

Usually a high or new record average for anything indicates confidence in the future or, in the case of Kelso ram sales, reflects a good harvest in the Borders and north of England on farms that have both crops and livestock. Well, harvest in our area has generally been good for yields and quality, but prices are low with wheat at the end of last week below £120 per tonne. Feed barley is about £100 per tonne. The lowest prices for several years would, based on past history, not have suggested a good trade at Kelso.

At the same time lamb prices plummeted last week to their lowest level for five years. Silly top prices paid by pedigree breeders aside, ram buyers at Kelso get returns from the commercial market for lambs sold to butchers and supermarkets. Low prices for their end product wouldn’t have indicated a good Kelso trade. Nor would recent meat-eating surveys that show each year we eat less lamb. Chicken and pork are cheaper and those of us who know that a good lamb chop or lamb roast can’t be beaten as a tasty, satisfying meal are a declining minority.

And yet, showing the difficulty of forecasting even something so straightforward as a ram sale, the Kelso trade in auctioneering terminology was buoyant and more could have been sold to advantage. Throughout the country, prices for female breeding sheep have also either held steady on the year or increased, as have prices for store lambs, those sold off the hills and uplands to lowland farmers to finish for the retail market.

Why? Search me. But the same is happening with dairy cattle. Ex-farm milk prices have been slashed in recent months by the big milk processors, but prices for dairy cattle sold at auction continue to run at £1,500 to £2,000 per head, new dairy farms are starting up and existing businesses are increasing herd size and expanding production.

I can only assume that the confidence in the future of lamb and milk production is another example of the difference between what farmers say and what they do. The split is obvious in most farming magazines. It’s a funny old game.