Industry experts gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the beef industry at Scotland’s Beef Event – and all were keen to demonstrate an alternative ‘plan’ to reduce emissions without any further loss of cows from the national herd.

The major themes highlighted through the seminar sections were increasing beef efficiency; reducing carbon emissions; and improving the sustainability of the beef businesses.

Recent price rises for beef had been long overdue and would, hopefully, put confidence back in the sector, with the biodiversity benefits of grazing cattle required to be a part of the future Government policy.

Sustainable farming in theory:

First up was Dauren Matakbayev, of Vytelle, who discussed its beef genetic programme which identified elite performers within herds, so that users are always improving genetics.

Dauren Matakbayev

Dauren Matakbayev

This accelerate genetic progress enabled farmers to identify optimal genetic traits using precise calculations, including residual feed intake (FRI) and average daily gain (ADG). Vytelle’s efficiency database is the world’s largest, featuring 25 breeds and more than 262,000 individual EPD animal records providing unprecedented benchmarking and improvement opportunities, he said.

“Unlocking animal performance to produce more beef with less feed will pay dividends to your bottom line, the integrated livestock platform arms you with animal data to use. Selecting genetics for improved feed efficiency reduces the next generation’s feed consumption and related costs, and improves the efficiency and profitability of your operation, but also reducing the overall methane emissions associated with beef production,” said Mr Matakbayev.

Following that, an animal health talk by vet, Dr Tom McNeilly – an immunologist and infectious disease biologist – showed the importance of healthy livestock in reducing any herd’s carbon footprint.

Dr Tom McNeilly

Dr Tom McNeilly

“The ultimate aim of improving the health and welfare of livestock is for an environmentally sustainable manner, but there are so many key benefits of improved health – improved production efficiency, welfare, carbon footprint, reduce of antimicrobial usage and other various environmental benefits,” said Dr McNeilly.

He highlighted that mortality due to animal diseases was responsible for 20% of all losses in livestock production globally.

Improvements in health can have immediate effects on GHG emissions, he said, even though breeding for reduced emissions took generations, feeding for reduced emissions and animal health both had almost immediate effects.

“But the question is how do we link health to emissions? And the answer is data, data, data! That is our major downfall in the industry, and we need to be able to rely on good data from farmers to know more about our herds and the way to improve our overall health in our herds,” he added.

Speaking about the relationship between beef farmers and woodland creations, Emma Kerr, carbon manager for Scottish Woodlands, who said: “I am passionate about the future of natural capital and the target of being Net Zero by 2045 in Scotland is creeping up so we have increased annual tree-planting to between 90-120m trees, equivalent to 30,000ha, per year,” said Ms Kerr.

“Understanding the necessity to manage forestry, peatland and land in a sustainable way will be vital to seeking an environment and economic equilibrium at both local and national levels to reach Net Zero targets,” she added, having advised about the Woodland carbon code and the peatland carbon code and how to derive the best future value from them.

Emma Kerr of Scottish Woodlands

Emma Kerr of Scottish Woodlands

Sustainable farming in practice:

Steven Sandison, Millburn, Orkney

Orkney farmer, Steven Sandison

Orkney farmer, Steven Sandison

A first-generation Orkney beef farmer, who has grown his herd of 100 Simmental and Salers cross cattle from scratch, has his sights set on Net Zero production.

He has been investigating the feasibility and achievability of suckler herd targets, and if profit after farm subsidies is possible.

“Beef farmers are continuously being told they need to be more efficient. Quality Meat Scotland estimates that only 82% of beef cows in Scotland wean a calf each year,” he pointed out.

“Meanwhile, QMS and SRUC recommends that herds should be weaning 92-94% from a nine-week breeding period. Either this target is unrealistic, or the industry is underachieving,” said Mr Sandison – who achieved a Nuffield Scholarship on this topic.

He asked all the farmers in his survey the same 22 questions to find out what breeds, housing, forage type, minerals, feeding method, management and health planning they had. But, most importantly, what was the scanning, calving, weaning and replacement rate.

Only 10% of the farmers he met in the UK were achieving better than the target of 92%. So, the main focus of his scholarship was to compare the top 10% with the bottom 10% of the farmers that he met, to represent the average suckler producer in Scotland.

“My findings have shown that 92% is setting the bar too high. Breed and type of cattle does matter, continental and native breeds have different strengths and when you combine the two, you can have the best of both worlds,” he said.

“I am in no doubt that the industry can improve greatly on what is being achieved at the moment. Farmers have all the tools and information already to achieve this. It is time to get this message across,” added Mr Sandison who has managed to reduce his own carbon footprint through attention to detail and increased efficiency measures.

Jamie Leslie, Scholland, Shetland

Jamie Leslie farms on Shetland

Jamie Leslie farms on Shetland

Having successfully integrated rotational grazing to better utilise grass, resulting in reduced costs and improved profits, Jamie Leslie, from Scholland, Shetland, was selected as Mixed Farmer of the Year 2022.

The main beef profit drivers at Scholland were ‘cow fertility, grass, fat cows, cow winter diet, calf growth and diet, our produce and inputs’ – all of which have been key focuses to help improve his business.

“Fluctuation of a cow’s Body Condition Scoring (BCS) throughout the season is natural and a great tool to improve profitability. By dropping a BCS from weaning to four weeks pre-calving saves 400kg FM of feed per cow and you can just imagine the cost implication benefit that this brings,” said Mr Leslie.

Home to 90 Aberdeen-Angus suckler cows and 1100 breeding ewes, he uses a leader-follower rotation system whereby the ewes, or growing cattle are given priority to the fresh grass over the cows and calves.

Having reduced his fertiliser intake by 30% by better grass budgeting, he has also increased his stock density by moving them every two days so that paddocks are grazed over three to four days.

Matt Griffin, Benson Wemyss, Peebles

Matt Griffin from Peebles

Matt Griffin from Peebles

After 14 years of managing farms in New Zealand, Matt Griffin now finds home at Benson Wemyss Farms, where he has a passion for ‘red meat and fibre’.

Adapting to a regenerative practice on his upland sheep and beef farm, he is aiming to convert to organic by 2024 and had already made vast improvements to the farm.

He is also leading a team to challenge conventional thinking and looking at how a focus on soil health, nutrient and water cycling can build resilience into the uplands of rural Scotland and create a positive, profitable and engaging business.

“A real focus has to be on soil health on any farm it is your biggest asset, the value of compensation growth can be catastrophic, with various trials proving this. In conclusion, we need to work on a low cost low impact system to make farming profitable, we need to work with nature and be part of the solution and not be the problem,” said Mr Griffin.