By Alasdair Macnab

I am humbled and somewhat shaken by the response to my last column about the challenges facing young vets today. Comments vary from “spot on;” “about time this was aired in public,” to some unexpected reactions.

I was most affected by a young lady vet, a year qualified, who was discussing the issues with me. I said to her “are you coping?” She responded with a flood of tears. Suffice to say things were not good. She is now being supported.

I reached a point in my veterinary career, when, following an entirely unnecessary incident, I realised I wasn’t coping with my work environment and changing that was outwith my control. I resigned and started a new career – in farming! We can’t all walk away and start something new. Most of you, like me, have financial, family and emotional ties to your farm or business.

This brings me to you, reader. How are you coping? How’s it going? Not too well I hear you say.

Beef prices, Brexit, lamb prospects, the exchange rate, cereal futures the list keeps on going. Are you able to make the changes to improve your business, improve work life balance? Do you know how to?

Below my last column was an interesting article on the principles of lean farming as a means of improving profit margins with the emphasis on small incremental rather than wholesale changes.

A good analogy is the success of British cycling in the velodrome and the Tour de France. Success was achieved by addressing the small losses in performance. For example four improvements of 1% each cumulatively gave an improvement of 7%. This can be applied to livestock farming.

The late Billy Vass of Seafield, Portmahomack, taught me a great lesson about the importance of attention to detail. At a monitor farm benchmarking group the financial performance was produced for each participant’s sheep flock. Billy’s gross margin was twice that of anyone else. How did he do that? Billy was a stickler for detail. Billy expected to wean over 200% every year from over 600 ewes.

Every sheep was recorded, litter size, any issues or difficulties at lambing or rearing were noted, which ewes got their lambs away first, which had the best weights, and so on.

He bred from the top performers in his flock. Any sheep that required treatment was examined with a stethoscope and thermometer, findings recorded and the date of treatment and a letter sprayed on the sheep for future reference. Any recurring issues such as lameness meant a tag indicating ‘to be culled’ was inserted. All deaths were taken to the vet lab as a priority for post mortem. Then we had the usual moan from the back of the hall “waste of time that, they never find anything.” “Precisely” retorted Billy. “I’m happy with that because common diseases are easily identified, prevented or treated. Finding nothing means I’ve missed nothing.” The devil’s in the detail he would say laughing at the same time.

How does this help in the current climate? Livestock production, no matter what you are producing, is a long term business. It is plagued with factors outside your control. There are factors which are within your control and they can make a big difference to your bottom line.

However, this is where we meet one of the significant barriers to progress – trusting science. Good science, like good business, depends on good quality data and plenty of it. Data is driving many aspects of society and our day to day lives. It has pervaded arable farming rapidly and effectively as the article I referred to reports. It has driven rapid change in the poultry, pig and dairy industries, yet it is still in its infancy in beef and sheep. Reflect on the transformation in these other livestock systems.

Progress is made by collecting data analysing it and reviewing it with advisers. How many of you meet with your nutritionist, vet and grassland adviser, around the table, at the same time? How much data would you have to work with? We have used this approach for some years and the benefits keep coming. We are challenged to gather more data on our soil, diets, stock performance and health.

Data analysis has brought significant change to the way we do things, we have freed up time, increased output and margins, understand better the relationship between our soils and what we produce.

There are many issues limiting profitability in the beef and sheep sectors which you can do something about. For example the average age of slaughter for a prime cattle beast in the UK is 26.5months. Let’s do some rudimentary arithmetic to demonstrate the issue – 26.5 months is 800 days. Take an average daily feed bill of £1.80, the cost is £1440 – 14 months is 425 days with an average daily feed bill of £2.30 the cost is £977. At a sale price of £1200, this is clearly an area for improvement.

Another issue is how EBVs are regarded by the industry. Whilst acknowledging there are issues with some of the data, its collection and processing, as time goes on and more generations and families are recorded the accuracy and reliability is improving. A recent Harper Adams report comparing the performance of an average EBV Hereford bull with a high EBV bull showed the higher EBV bull’s calves finished 31 days quicker and their carcases were 7.5kg heavier. Some 31 days at £2.30 a day and £3.50 per carcase kg equates to £97.55 per beast.

What does that mean to the suckled calf producer in the hills? A lot I would suggest. Buyers round the sale ring keep track of the performance of cattle they buy and know which herds produce cattle that give returns. Investing in performance pays off. It is a long term game and the returns will take a year or two to develop. I’ll say more on this next month...