4th April 2011

Survey reveals increased confidence among sheep producers

Lack of skilled labour still a key concern for larger flocks

A survey of Scottish sheep farmers by Quality Meat Scotland has revealed a significant turnaround in confidence among producers has taken place over the past three years.

Just over 30% of the 327 respondents to the postal survey at the end of 2010 were more confident about their sheep enterprise than they were this time last year while just 11% were less confident.

The most optimistic were farmers in the south west, the only region which recorded an increase in ewe numbers in autumn 2010, with those in the south east region broadly the least optimistic.

“There has been a significant turnaround from the level of confidence found in the 2007 QMS survey when only 5% of flock masters were more confident of their future than they had been in 2006,” observed Stuart Ashworth, QMS Head of Economics Services.

Responses to the survey – which had a 12.5% response rate and accounts for around 4.5% of the Scottish ewe population – revealed the Scottish ewe flock continues to be dominated by hill breeds and crosses of hill breeds.

Across the whole survey 47% of ewes were pure bred hill ewes, mainly Blackface and Cheviots, and a further 32% were hill crosses. Lowground breeds and crosses were more likely to be found in the east of Scotland.

Among those businesses that had a ewe flock in each of the past three years, the overall flock was down 1% in autumn 2009 compared to 2008 and a further 1% in autumn 2010. Across the whole sample the autumn 2010 flock was 0.5% smaller than in autumn 2009.

The rate of change between 2008 and 2009 among the whole sample is greater than that reported in the Scottish Government’s December 2009 survey but is less than the decline reported in the June 2010 census. With the rate of decline being less between 2009 and 2010 the indication from this survey is that the Scottish ewe flock is broadly unchanged for the 2011 lambing.

“Looking forward, 73 businesses (22% of respondents) indicated a desire to increase their ewe flock during 2011 while 37 businesses (11%) expected to reduce flock size in 2011. Once again this is a significant turnaround from the 2007 survey where the low level of confidence was reflected in 25% of those surveyed reporting they intended to reduce flock size while only 14% were thinking of increasing their flocks,” Mr Ashworth added.

Looking at planned investments to be undertaken in 2011, respondents reported sheep handling equipment as the most likely area of investment. The second most likely investment will be in computerised animal records and management information systems with investment in performance recorded stock, ranked as the third most likely investment.

Flock size does have an impact on investment decisions with the use of performance recorded stock, investment in skills training, computer record keeping and sheep housing all more likely to occur among flocks of over 200 ewes than among smaller flocks.

Across all regions there were three main issues of concern. “Having the greatest influence on the planning process was uncertainty over the future of the Single Farm Premium payment followed by concerns over the future of the less favoured area support scheme. However, both were given a much higher ‘concerned score’ in the western regions, dominated by livestock production and LFA land,” said Mr Ashworth.

“The third most consistent concern was that of skilled labour availability with those running the largest flocks, over 300 ewes, expressing greatest concern,” he added.

The survey also revealed a slight trend towards later lambing between the 2009 and 2010 lamb crop years. This trend is likely to continue into the 2011 lamb crop with 8% of respondents indicating a later start to lambing while 5% are going to start lambing earlier.

Despite the challenging weather in early 2010, the weighted average lamb weaning/marking percentage reported by survey respondents was unchanged between 2009 and 2010. Indeed in the northern regions there was some improvement in weaned percentages, it was only in the south east that the lambing percentage declined.

However, while the average change in the lambing percentage between 2009 and 2010 was minimal, individual businesses reported a wide range of variation.

At the time of the survey sales of the 2010 lamb crop had not been completed. However, lambs retained for future breeding on the farm of birth increased by over 1000 head while sales of lambs for future breeding remained at the same level as in 2009. As a consequence more lambs are being targeted for future breeding in 2010.

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