Westray’s farming community voiced their concerns at a recent meeting held on the island to discuss the impending changes to the Scottish Beef Calf Scheme. ‘We have to get this stopped’ was the strong message.

More than a decade ago, Scottish suckler beef production was under threat, the farms and livelihoods of our islanders were at stake. The farmers got together and formulated a position statement with a grim prediction of impending suckler cow reduction. This was sent to the then SNP government and the cabinet secretary for rural affairs Richard Lochhead. He had a real passion for Scottish food and drink and realised it was the biggest single industry in Scotland – it had to be kept for rural jobs and economic activity, and so the SSBSS was born. It did its job until recent years in that it halted the decline in cow numbers.

Unfortunately, the current Green government don’t realise where their food comes from and haven’t kept payments up with inflation – and now cow numbers have dropped dramatically. Our industry is at the brink and now the main drive is to cut support to pay for the mismanagement of the economy. We need the calf payment doubled just to stay equal to where we originally were, not rules imposed which will cut it. Our present Cabinet Secretary says she is concerned about the critical mass of the suckler herd yet is happy to sign a ruling to see the cows go even faster than they have up to now? This year’s calf claim was for significantly less calves due to fewer beef cows in Scotland. If critical mass concerns you then you have to support the sector.

Firstly, the proposal, which has now become the rule, is causing much anxiety among farmers. They live on an island on the northwest corner of Orkney and are especially affected by the vagaries of the Scottish weather. Buffeted by North Atlantic gales, copious lashings of salt spray and always unsure what next week's weather will be. Grass growth is a good week later here in spring than on the Orkney mainland even. Spring can be three weeks later from one year to the next so getting your cows to the bull is a lottery for a start.

If only you could be certain to get your cows to the bull on day 58 life would be easy. There are so many factors in these new rules which have not been thought through. When will this Scottish Government listen to the people who actually do the work? We are told the Scottish Government wants to co-design the new Ag schemes – could we ask the question ‘what do they consider co-design?’ as it seems they have totally ignored every opinion expressed to them and pushed an unrealistic rule change upon us with no practical input whatsoever.

Secondly, according to figures from the accountant, the SSBSS equates to around 22.5% of the average profit of the Westray farms. Any cut in this support will have a detrimental effect on profitability and therefore the very existence of the farms. With around 50% of the island's farms with no obvious succession and the occupier being older than 55 years, this is causing another huge concern. How can we ever persuade a young person to take over a business where the very operating profit is at risk due to rule changes, let alone showing any profit guarantee to the lender?

Thirdly, with 75% of Westray farms having Charolais and Simmental bulls or both, due to the biggest demand at Orkney Auction Mart being for Charolais cross Simmental cattle, then we are in a worse place before we start due to the gestation length of the Charolais calf. Very often we find Simmental cows carrying Charolais calves will have near a 10-month gestation. If you add on two months before she is ready for the bull then the window is tight before you start and if any complications arise you will easily miss 410 days.

The percentage of Simmental cross cows in Scotland which calved before 410 days in 2022 was 83%. We believe the wording of the regulation states they reserve the right to reduce the number of days by up to 10 per year for potentially three years. This takes the figure to 380 days which would see only 63% of Simmental cows calved if 2022 is the standard. It also carries a big threat for the Orkney Auction Mart as 38% of all the cattle sold in 2023 were Charolais and 14% Simmental. That’s over 50% of the cattle sales at threat if we have to change our breeds.

Twenty per cent of the cattle sold in Orkney Auction Mart was Aberdeen Angus cross. The percentage of cows calved at 410 days in 2022 for Aberdeen Angus cross was 86%, dropping to 67% at 380 days. So even the native breeds are only slightly better. This is totally unacceptable and can only see the quick demise of the Scottish suckler herd in Westray, in Orkney, and indeed Scotland.

Some of the other farms are breeding native-type breeds with low input, slow maturing focus – there can also be a big negative in some of those breeds having a long average calving index.

Fourthly, in the event of bull failure then you can easily lose a cycle or two. If you have a bull who leaves big calves and you get a season with a lot of dead calves and cows needing a long recovery time, then you have a double hit next year with fewer calves to sell and lots of cows gone over the calving index. The majority of farms would try to breed most of their own replacements for closed herd, health reasons, so buying in replacements is not good practice.

While the average may not seem too bad on paper, having 85% of the cows calved at 410 days, the reality is should you be unfortunate and see either a bad spring or bull failure, then your calf payment could be so reduced it would have a huge impact on your profitability.

The farmers of Westray, Orkney