Possible takeover of Swan and Sons is big talking point

No doubt about the biggest talking point in Borders farming last week when it seemed that Santa had arrived early for shareholders in livestock auctioneers John Swan and Sons.

The reported offer of 1350p per share by Carlisle-based Harrison & Hetherington almost doubled Swan’s share price at the time of the offer and valued the firm at more than £8 million. Unsurprisingly, Swan’s board recommended acceptance. That might not be as straightforward as it seemed, given the kerfuffle, roused passions and arguments the last time a Swan’s takeover was considered a few years ago.

Co-ordinating for and against factions was hard work and left a few bruised egos and some angry people to count the cost. But the impact of the H&H offer and prospect of a Christmas windfall might be making it easier this time. One certainty is that the offer is being made by one of the most professional livestock auctioneering businesses in Britain and one that has expanded steadily in the past 20 years. H&H’s present valuation is about £27 million. Swan’s most recent trading account for the year ended April 2014 showed a pre-tax loss of £369,000, a slight improvement on the previous year.

It is one of the old-fashioned, in a way endearing, facts about farming that even in the cut-throat – no pun intended – livestock trade so much business is still done on trust and a handshake. That is why unscrupulous con-men and dodgy dealers can still run up large debts buying “on tick” and auctioneers get hit with bad debts. Every time it happens, firms introduce tighter controls and come up with that excuse we hear so often in every walk of life “lessons have been learned”.

We continue to have some terrific weather although there is a lot of water lying in some areas and walking through arable fields is heavy going. I always intend to weigh how much mud can attach to a boot when walking through winter wheat or barley, but never get round to it. It sometimes feels like half a hundredweight, but is probably no more than two or three pounds or, I should say, about 25 kg and 1.5 kg. Somehow that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The effect is worse on livestock farms. Outside feeding areas for cattle have become quagmires unless there is some form of hard standing and it would be no surprise if a quad bike or stockman disappeared in some gateways. But it will all dry out in time. And crops continue to look mainly healthy, a good start towards harvest 2015. Results from this year’s harvest, just published, indicate an estimated 3.2 million tonnes of grain from Scottish farms, up 13% on last year and the highest total for 20 years. Wheat averaged 9.1 tonnes per hectare and spring barley 6.1 tonnes.