By Jane Craigie

Basil Lowman has spent 50 years as beef specialist at SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). In this, the last of a three-part series, we explore EBVs, eatability and the future.

Inquisitive, determined and pioneering are words frequently used to describe Basil. Those personal traits, coupled with his ethos of always listening to the industry about what is needed, have led to game-changing research into beef breeding and production.

As is the philosophy of his wider SAC Consulting team, for Basil science has always underpinned on-farm advice, and, routinely, one piece of research always raises more questions resulting in yet further research.

An example of one of his team’s spider’s web of investigations started one autumn in the 1970s and it was underpinned by his deep-seated hope of more supply chain collaboration between farmers and butchers that would spread throughout the industry.

“We had 15 calves from a farm on Mull, which we were planning to finish on a farm near Berwick,” he said. “We wanted to reduce the stress on individual beef farming businesses via collaboration and to explore meat yield, carcase composition and the public’s views on the taste of beef reared in different ways.

“We split the calves into groups to trial different feed additives such as Golden Triple, a fishmeal, and growth-promoting implants. We ended up with 12 different rearing combinations and, by involving consumers, it gave us a tremendous insight into the influence of feed additives on carcases, but importantly, people’s perceptions of eatability.”

Organic taste tests

Fast-forward a decade to the late 1980s, when organic food was 'discovered', Basil and his team ran a trial looking at organic versus conventional beef, also taking the finished animals through to slaughter and public taste tests.

“We had 32 Hereford/Friesians, half of them were reared conventionally, the other half organically,” he explained. “The organic herd was fed cow’s milk and grazed on natural, steep, unimproved grassland, whilst the others were fed milk substrates and a conventional feeding regime.

“The organic herd had much more human interaction and their happiness and behaviour reflected this,” he said. “Whether this trust led to the organic cattle being calmer at slaughter, I don’t know, but in blind tests, despite no difference in the carcases, consumers preferred the organic meat.”

He added that this study taught him a great deal about animal welfare and animals’ interaction with people. “We need to consider the animal, if all it knows in its early life is pain – from ear tagging and castration, for example – is it any wonder that four out of 20 people who died on farm last year were killed by cattle?”

For this reason, he’s a big advocate of things like scratching brushes and out-of-parlour feeding for improving contentment.

“Historically, a stockman would have wandered around the cattle court checking the stock and scratching their ears, the animals associated a human with pleasure, so I’m really keen to try things like projecting a hologram of a person alongside a recording of a human voice into the cattle shed to assess its impact.”

End market needs

The end market’s needs had always been central to his thinking and SRUC’s research, driving his team’s work in developing breeding techniques like synchronised oestrus, criss cross replacement systems and the use of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs), which he says has been instrumental in developing the use of maternal EBVs as an industry tool.

“I’ve always been keen on EBVs and understanding the role of genetics, but we need to think about how they are now used,” he said. “The original EBVs focused on daily liveweight gain and cattle size, but now the market has changed and size is capped by the abattoirs, so we are selecting for cattle that won’t make farmers money, because they are just too big. It’s a difficult situation, but one that needs tackling.”

Gavin Hill, SAC Consulting’s business operations manager and beef specialist, added: “Basil was instrumental in the promotion of EBVs for pedigree cattle and showing how farmers could use the information to help select the right bulls for commercial herds. His drive and determination resulted in the industry adopting EBVs and this has had a wide impact on the beef sector. Calving Ease was the most important trait that Basil strove to get right.”

Basil sees a bright future for Scotch Beef in the international market. “I expect that beef will become a luxury product for special occasions and will have a very strong global demand linked to the provenance of being Scottish. Scotland has a unique price position that is linked to the country’s positive brand story – men in kilts and the beautiful landscape.”

He also predicted that there will be a big increase in the production and consumption of microbial proteins manufactured into products like flour, and that the demand for animal proteins as a daily food will reduce.

Doubling efficiency

In terms of how farmers respond to this, he said that doubling efficiency and not herd size will be essential. And, as you might expect, he had plans for his next pieces of research, despite having reached retirement age more than a decade ago.

“I have eight grandchildren and I’m petrified for their future. Beef cattle produce methane and carbon dioxide, but there are lots of ways to reverse climate change and produce a highly saleable product," he said.

“Anaerobic digestion plants are not efficient and are not a good use of feed crops. We should be using muck and products like waste cooking oil in them, in my view. It is more logical to house cattle like pigs and poultry in a closed system to collect the methane and ammonia and sell the energy as you would with an AD plant.

“I’m ignorant and don’t let the two-inch bolt stop me from imagining doing things differently. We just need to look at what’s happening in space research, where they are growing wheat seed to harvest in 50 days and achieving yields of 700-2500t/ha.”

Gavin Hill’s view is that Basil had always wanted to make a difference to the farming sector and had done just that. “I have always respected that. When the odds were stacked against him, he would use the science and his determination to prove that he was right – but when he is wrong, he is the quickest to apologise. Basil has always simply wanted to help every beef farmer and that has been his enduring passion.”

Many, many people in the industry have seen Basil speak about his forthright views – he is described as thought-provoking, entertaining and often radical. His SAC Consulting colleagues say that he clocked up more miles than any of them over the years.

He also authors the sector-renowned Beef and Sheep News, which – along with his other communications – is managed by his colleague, Val Angus, who scribes for him.

Gavin Hill added: “Basil has his own unique communication skills and often brings humour into his presentations to get points across. However, if you ask a daft question, he will certainly quickly let you know.

"His trademark start to a meeting is with some controversy to stun the audience and to create debate. This approach to getting his point across has caused much reaction both positive and negative over the years, but always resulted in memorable meetings.”

The last words about Basil Lowman are best summed up by Kirsten Williams, beef and sheep consultant at SAC Consulting. She said: “The thing I respect the most is his amazing attitude, how after so many years in the same industry, he has the enthusiasm and energy to dream up new projects and react to big changes within the sector, such as climate change.

“He is a complete inspiration and extremely forward thinking. He isn’t very computer literate, but he comes up with weird and wonderful uses of technology for cattle, which blows my mind. And, despite being a dominant character in a group of people, on a one-to-one basis, he thrives on mentoring and nurturing people.”