By Alasdair Macnab

I’m not getting over missing the Highland Show. It’s our annual holiday.

It wasn’t just the social side or the showing. It wasn’t going round the food hall and other places of interest. It’s the opportunity to find out what technology has to offer us in farming. Where is it going? What can it be used for? What opportunities does it present? What is coming next? I find this a really exciting part of the show.

All across our wildly varied industry things are moving forward at an intriguing rate. Smart machinery, in every sense of the word; DNA analysis to improve genetic progress, artificial intelligence being used to pick soft fruit must surely mean we are making shed loads of profit.

Why then do the latest Farm Business Income figures from Scottish Government show only 28% of farm businesses make a profit before subsidy? That’s only two out of every seven farms.

What is going on? How much are processors and retailers to blame? How much is our occasional or frequent lack of attention to detail to blame or inability to negotiate? What’s the evidence? What are the issues?

Jim Brown’s recent Opinion column highlighted the issues that are outwith our control. I’ll highlight some issues that are within our control and where we could do a bit better.

Last Saturday I was reading the Vet Record over breakfast and came across the SAC surveillance report for March 2020. It was this report that started me asking how good are at farming.

First up was a report of an investigation into a group of 28, 15-21-month-old Aberdeen Angus bulls bought by a finishing unit. They were thin on arrival. Weight gain over three months varied from 100kg-150kg. Then some developed an abnormal gait and went off their legs. The diagnosis was rickets resulting in muscle rupture.

How can this be? The diet was based on beans, molasses and potatoes. There was no mineral and vitamin supplement provided. How does this happen in this day and age with so many nutritionists around? Really?

This begs several questions of concern. What went wrong that the bulls weren’t away by 16 months? Why were they thin? Why did the finisher decide on a diet with no vitamin or mineral supplement? Why did no alarm bells ring about the poor performance on the finishing diet?

Not content with that, SAC reported on deaths in 10-month-old hoggs following overdosing with Closantel. It turns out the farmer had guessed the weights of the sheep and had given a 60% overdose causing toxicity and death in some. All for the lack of weigh scales and the application of old technology, an expensive mistake.

Further through the Vet Record, I read a review article on the distribution of lungworm diagnosis in the UK. In the 1990s the hotspot was the South-east of England. The incidence down there had dropped by 50% by 2014. The hotspot is now Scotland!!!

Incidence in Scotland has increased by a factor of 4½ times over the same period. The peak occurs between July and October with cases also being seen during the winter with an increase in cases in adult cattle since the 1980s. There are many reasons for this including the use of anthelmintics with a long duration of action.

Bear in mind this is a disease for which a vaccine exists. Long duration anthelmintics prevent lungworm larvae from developing so immunity does not develop. It is only when as an adult they encounter the larvae for the first time and with no protection they develop disease. As a vet I’ve seen two and three-year-old bulls with lungworm. By the time I was called in, euthanasia was the only option.

Question time again. Why are there so many diagnoses of lungworm in cattle of all ages when the technology to prevent this disease is readily available and cheap? Why has Scotland become the hotspot? Are the much vaunted health plans that QMS demand just a piece of paper to put away till next year or a plan to ensure maximum performance from your stock?

My current baling contractor has a top of the range model. It can be set to produce quadrant bales at preset weights; multipacks of small bales; it has an applicator for hay preservative and a moisture meter at the intake reel.

We made hay last year for the first time in many years in a poor July. We baled at the end of a reasonably dry day and used preservative. At the end of the field he told me the range of moisture was between 12% and 30%. We used the hay over the winter. There was no mould, no mustiness and in April the last bale smelt as sweet as the day it was baled. This technology has huge potential in Scotland.

I was contacted recently by a farmer who is considering using quadrants for the first time. He was blown away by the technology available. He wasn’t aware of any of it.

At the NFUS AGM I and two other farmers had a most interesting discussion with Karen Betts CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association. She had told the AGM what a great job we were doing growing quality barley for Scotland’s whisky industry.

She was taken aback when we explained the tight margins involved in growing barley and disbelieving when the other two farmers told her they regarded malting barley as the Cinderella crop in their rotation.

My experience of dealing with malsters is not good. It’s stacked against us. The malster is judge jury and executioner when it comes to deciding what passes and what doesn’t. There must be a fairer and more transparent method.

NFUS have done well to negotiate a fixed margin for malting barley above feed, but it’s not enough. Ms Betts was told we don’t want a fortune, just enough to make a reasonable living. Given the average gross income of a household in Scotland in 2018/19 was around £38,500 how many farms could boast that?

Questions: Why are farmers so reluctant to embrace change? Why is technology not driving the mainstream in the industry? Why are so many of us not getting the basics right? Why do we take a negotiating line with suppliers but not with our customers?

These examples highlight where we are losing money in our farming systems. It’s all taking from the bottom line. I contend it’s not always the processor and retailer who are killing margins.