While the rest of the nation headed to vote in the general election, Scotland’s beef industry gathered at the Scottish Beef Event, held at Fans Farm, Earlston. Alex Robinson reports.
Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing, who opened the event applauded the global strength of the Scotch beef industry.
Mr Ewing told the audience: “On behalf of the Government, I would like to thank Scottish beef farmers for their work. Your sector totals 40 per cent of Scottish agriculture produce and provides over 11,000 jobs.
"The Scotch Beef brand is constantly entering new markets, and as an industry, you farm some of the highest quality meat in the world.”
One of the prominent themes of the day was continued scepticism of the governments beef efficiency scheme, a multi-million-pound initiative aimed at improving the operations and breeding programmes of Scottish suckler herds.
While Mr Ewing admitted the scheme had fallen victim to some difficulties, he said ‘the task was in hand’, and was also adamant payments would be ‘flooding’ into bank accounts promptly.
He also said Pillar One payments had already been made to thousands of farmers and the Government expected the rest to be complete by the EU’s deadline on the June 30.
Discussion in a seminar, chaired by local beef farmer and former NFU Scotland vice-president Rob Livesey, Selkirk, also turned to the scheme, where the focus was on the fact many farmers had dropped out.
Nuffield scholar Robert Fleming, who runs an Aberdeen-Angus suckler herd at Castle Sininess, Glenluce, disputed the negative opinions and thought the breeding opportunities it provided could be hugely beneficial.
He said: “Genotypes are the potential for life, and the prospect of getting paid to do it is great. The scheme is giving farmers powerful tools to maximise herd potential, so the choice to partake is a simple one for me.”
However, Dunbar-based suckler farmer John Hamilton said the problems with the initiative were down to the amount of labour and administration required, something which commercial breeders did not have time for.
Branding and satisfying consumer demand were among the other key debates, which focused on the potential profitability of beef in Scotland, and how the industry needed to react to the political uncertainty currently consuming the nation.
Beef specialist Adam Woods heralded efficiency as the key to a beef farms success, but also said the industry was significantly behind other sectors in terms of implementing technological innovation.
Mr Woods said: “It is all about controlling the variables which can be controlled; a farmer can do little about the policy or price of the time, but he can enforce changes to production to reduce cost. Small changes can make a big difference.”
Mr Hamilton was quick to support this, and suggested a sound infrastructure and good pasture management were things to implement to reduce on-farm costs and improve general productivity.
He said Scotch Beef had a solid place in the market, but the brand needed protecting during the uncertainty of Brexit in order to safeguard it against cheap and inferior products. He placed most of this responsibility on supermarkets, which needed to ‘pay farmers a fair price for their products so it can be re-invested in farms’, using the declined British pig industry as an example of what can happen when cheap imports are favoured over home-farmed products.
As agriculture manager for the red meat and dairy division at Marks and Spencer, Anna Playfair-Hannay said her company will continue to support Scotch Beef, but how it was still important for the brand to keep producing consistent products which the consumer wants. Ms Playfair-Hannay said: “Ultimately, the consumer is king. Beef is in constant competition with other, cheaper proteins. The average annual spend on protein per person is only 11 per cent, and people are generally spending less on food. Therefore, we need to provide a product which can be backed up by traceability and un-disputable quality.”
Ms Playfair-Hannay also predicted regionality would be become more important in the marketing of meat products, as consumers increasingly take a greater interest in where their food comes from.
In the final leg of the discussion, the panel debated if current levels of farmer support were preventing innovation within the industry. Mr Fleming described the two types of subsidy takers he had experienced; those who take the subsidy and invest in their business, and those who cover the losses from in-efficient farming.
Mr Wood believed young farmers were usually at the fore of innovation in farming and were sometimes stifled by payments going to other members in the business.
A final word from Mr Fleming closed the debate, as he encouraged the industry to keep pushing the Scotch Beef brand.
He said: “We have a product which consumers appreciate and we must promote it by highlighting the good things we do, and others do not.”
Fans Farm of Earlston, in the Scottish Borders, is home to Douglas Stewart and his family’s 400-strong commercial Aberdeen-Angus suckler herd. Of the total 983 hectares (2,430 acres) of farmland owned by the family, the cattle utilises 189ha (468a) of permanent pasture, 128ha (315a) of rough grazing and 52ha (120a) of rotational grass twice-cut for silage.
The rest of the land is maintained for arable purposes, producing cereal crops and specialist seed potatoes.
The beef enterprise, consisting completely of home-bred females, raises and finishes all stock on-farm. Select heifers are kept for breeding and the cattle are almost entirely self-sufficient with the only bought-in feed being high mag rolls for the cows and soya as a protein supplement for the calves.
In the 1970s, the original herd of pedigree Aberdeen-Angus was phased out when the family moved into commercial beef production, switching to bought-in dairy cross females, crossed with a Charolais bulls.
The BSE crisis of the late 1990s prompted a return of the Angus cattle, with the aim of breeding their own pure-bred replacement females. The new commercial breeding programme currently in place ‘produces a more consistent type of cow’, says Mr Stewart, who places increased emphasis on feet and udder quality. Strict management and culling regimes ensure calving periods are kept tight and the farm adheres to a strict two-year-old calving schedule.
All bulls are bought privately and each new addition is semen tested. At present, 14 bulls reside on-farm, and Mr Stewart tends to opt for leaner bulls, favouring those with good calving ease and milk figures.
“We are lucky to have the resources to be able to run this kind of self-sufficient mixed enterprise, and the beef cattle have been integral to the running of the business”, says Mr Stewart. “My advice to farmers is to find a way of making the best out of your own system. Good management, attention to detail and sustainability are the main factors which add up to a profitable enterprise.”
Overall, 1, J. Mckay; 2, F. Irving; 3, T. Renwick.
Female, 1, J. Mckay; 2, C. Orr; 3, K. Barrie.
Male, 1, F. Irving; 2, T. Renwick; 3, C. MacPherson.
Junior, 1, A. Hutchinson; 2, K. Wallace; 3, E. Barr.
Best breed society stand, Simmental Cattle Society.
Best trade stand, Henderson grass machinery.