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Brexit is a concern for beef farmers, but I’m still bullish about future prospects

Brexit brings with it lots of uncertainty, but as long my business is prepared, I’m bullish about future prospects, says Rob Drysdale, a beef producer and integrator from West Sussex.

A SWOT analysis for my fledgling beef business is a task I have put off for as long as possible, just as the Government and its many opponents seem to have approached the looming Brexit deadline and deal.

 

Is there an opportunity to be had, or is the process going to be one huge threat?

 

Now with barely three months to go to ‘B-Day’, the conversation at a recent shoot lunch swung inevitably to Brexit and what was I doing to ‘Brexit- proof’ my business.

 

What was I doing? I was not planning for Brexit at a micro level – indeed when a friend said his business was even fixing electricity prices I was concerned for his mental wellbeing – but at a macro level: how might beef farming change in the coming years?

 

When I set out on a Nuffield Farming study tour in 2014, a referendum on EU membership had not been discussed.

 

Expectations

 

Indeed, when I started my beef business I was sure it would be uncoupled from direct subsidy, although land rents and expectations of the farmers I work with may not have been!

 

Change is inevitable, and the disruption it causes often brings both inconvenience and opportunity.

 

If we do reach B-Day and actually leave the EU, this will be the start of a new chapter in UK history for the consumer and the producer.

 

There are still a lot of ifs and deadlines to meet before this happens. But it will happen in one iteration or another, and UK farming as most of us have known it over the past 50 years in the EU protected CAP system with its intervention, direct and indirect support etc. will change.

 

I am a tenant and contract farmer, working with twelve separate farms running within an integrated beef supply chain, currently farming over 4,000 head of cattle.

 

Co-operate

 

In the various agreements I have with the farmers I work with from Carmarthen to Horsham, one point stands clear above all the legalese – both sides have to co-operate to produce a mutually beneficial outcome and for the agreement to continue.

 

Our combined businesses must succeed for the relationship to prosper. This co-operation includes cropping, housing, feeding, management and overall marketing for the beef cattle the system ultimately produces.

 

It is only through a truly producer-led approach that I feel farmers and farming will progress post-decoupling of subsidies and faced with exposure to world markets.

 

How can I plan for the impacts of Brexit when I am not directly responsible for buying fertiliser to grow silage or diesel to run machinery on the farms I work with?

 

The currency fluctuations we have already seen have had both good and bad effects on my business: the beef price rose as exports became more feasible, while imports became more expensive, yet inputs such as feed and fertiliser have also risen.

 

Risen

 

Electricity and diesel costs have increased, while salaries have risen as a labour shortage materialised.

 

How many, and this is just a short list, of these changes can be singularly and directly linked to Brexit?

 

What can be done to ensure our business remains viable post Brexit? Focus on the cost of production: better efficiency, minimised wastage and improved animal health and welfare.

 

All commendable ambitions and ones my farming business is already targeting, however perhaps the most overlooked area many farmers fail to aim for is their end market, particularly with beef.

 

To produce what the market wants and ensure maximum return on every animal should be a key goal.

 

Positive

 

Brexit for UK beef farmers appears to be positive be it no-deal or an agreed withdrawal.

 

Scratch below the surface though and look at the impact of cheap imports – not without World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs – or more costly inputs and you may be more concerned.

 

As for me – I am remaining bullish.

 

While concerned by potential short, medium and longer-term gains and losses, all I can do really is ensure my own business is ready for tomorrow.

 

Rob can be found tweeting at @robdvet


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