FARMERS have been strongly advised to wait for details of the mid-term Cap reform before making any decisions.

At the National Beef Association's major conference on the reform, held at Skipton mart on Friday of last week, Robert Forster, chief executive, warned against hasty decisions, particularly on reducing livestock numbers.

"Wait until you are better informed, not just about the rules but about what is likely to happen as well," he said. "If you make a decision now you will have made it in haste and will repent at your leisure."

He was addressing 200 farmers who had travelled from all parts of North Yorkshire, Durham, and Cleveland.

Mr Forster said the proposed changes were so dramatic that old clichs about moving goalposts did not apply. "You are going to be asked to play a game on a pitch whose dimensions you do not recognise, to rules you have never heard of, with a ball whose shape is totally unfamiliar, and in a location you have never played at," he said.

Mr Forster said the European Commission wanted consumers to see that its products were superior to those produced outside the EU, such as America, Australia and Asia. The hormone ban it introduced in 1986 was a prime example of its thinking.

But it also wanted farmers to get off the "spike" of headage payments, believing that system led farmers to produce so they could collect the payments.

"It wants you to get closer to the market by taking away obstructive subsidies such as the second beef special premium payment," he said. "It generally means you hold on to the animal until it is past its best, simply to collect that payment."

Instead, farmers would receive an annual payment based on payments received between 2000-02.

"We do not really know the details yet, but with this system you have the chance to get off the spike of headage payments." Mr Forster said.

He was concerned that some farmers might reduce stock numbers once the annual payment came in. Britain was already only 64pc self-sufficient in beef, with the rest of the beef on the market from an animal not from the UK.

"The bulk coming in is from the Republic of Ireland and last year the price for their prime cattle was 140p-145p dead weight, compared with 170p-172p for our own," he said.

Farmers should ask themselves how much more could come into the country.

Although the volume of beef from the Republic accounted for 23pc of domestic production, more came from Belgium, Germany and South America.

"Because of sterling we have had forequarter beef coming in from animals which must have been skin and bone, selling at 80p to 90p/kg."

The more beef we imported, the more difficult it would be to maintain prices and develop market opportunities. Fewer home-produced animals would lead only to greater imports.

But, if farmers kept their stocking levels close to existing numbers, it would be more likely that prime cattle prices would be maintained. If levels fell, it would be more difficult to maintain "and we could get into a spiral of prices dropping and people dropping out," warned Mr Forster.

That could have a knock-on effect on other parts of the industry such as abattoirs and processors.

The proposed regulations allowed payments of £350 a year for high-welfare-reared animals. The NBA had pointed out that naturally-reared suckler animals were perfect for that criteria, but was told there was not enough money in the UK budget to foot the bill.

The NBA has said, however, that, if Defra wants the landscape and other features, it will have to do something to help extensive farming