Constant ordeal of cost-cuts

Farmer Who Carried On
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GORDON MEEK has hung on in there. He is the fourth generation of his family to run the 400-acre Eland Hall Farm at Ponteland, west of Newcastle upon Tyne, and he has been determined that the BSE crisis and the resulting beef export ban would not see him off.

He has survived by ruthlessly watching costs, helped by the fact that his farm is only 50 per cent livestock. The other half is arable, producing wheat, barley and oilseed rape.

His livestock operation is extensive, raising about 60 steers and 300 heifers a year for beef from a suckler herd of 60 Simmental-cross cows. The beef export ban hit him immediately. "It's made things very difficult," said 45-year-old Mr Meek. "We've lost a lot of our traditional markets. We were producing beef for Italy, young steers. That was a main market, and suddenly we couldn't go there at all. It stopped overnight. Massive value was knocked off the stock overnight, too. When the ban came in the farm-gate price of our beef dropped from 120p per kilo to about 80p, so we had to get the cost of production down below that."

The diet for his animals, mainly grass silage, was costing about 70p per kilo of animal, so it was changed. "We abandoned grass, which was expensive to produce, and went over to potatoes, which were cheaper," he said. "We ploughed some of the grassland and gave it over to wheat.

"We have got our diet costs down now to around 50p per kilo. We've got to cut our costs dramatically. We are aiming to cut costs all the time."

The farm has economised on investment, not replacing a tractor that would normally have been renewed, and similarly not replacing a Land Rover. "There has got to be an awful lot of looking at the daily farm budget," he added. "And in future it looks like we're going to have to produce beef at these lower prices."

He welcomes the possibility of the ban being lifted. "It's a start, and it's going to give people a confidence boost, but the crucial thing is to get the beef on the bone ban lifted." But he bears the scars.

"The last three years have been very, very difficult. Talking to the older generation, the one above us., they also feel it's the hardest time they've ever had in farming."