By Alasdair Macnab

As most of you will know I sit on the NFUS legal and technical committee. The last three months have disappeared under a deluge of consultations which the Union had to respond to – Regional Land Use Partnerships; discussions with the Ramblers Association on mapping Scotland’s paths; Scotland’s Third Land Use Strategy; changes to planning regulations; changes to the agriculture flat rate scheme; short term lets; mediation on access issues; land tax policy and clean air for Scotland were just some of the issues.

The Suckler Beef Climate Scheme report and the launch of work on the new QMS Strategy for the Scottish Beef Sector to 2030 has helped to pass these winter nights.

When planning a column I usually find inspiration from day to day encounters in my business. I have had little inspiration for several weeks. You may be pleased to know I have now found some inspiration.

Watching the NFUS hustings I perceived four key issues and some supplementary issues that I feel should be our primary focus.

Top of the list is lack of profit, swiftly followed by the need to make our industry attractive to new blood, thirdly the need to improve our resilience in how we farm, what we produce and what is around us. Fourthly we need to integrate more effectively in our local communities given the changes coming in government policy.

Yes I will admit it – in the interests of Scottish Farming – I read the Beef Climate Scheme report end to end. In all 209 pages of very interesting reading and I’ll review some of the background to the scheme in future columns.

It is a rare and good piece of work. It is a big first step. It proposes positive steps to improve the viability of Scottish beef production, our greenhouse gas emission reduction capabilities, and sustainability. Work is already under way on delivery of the scheme. It is up to the industry to take up the opportunities it will present and invest the time, money and labour to make it work.

The Beef Climate Scheme addresses a wide range of issues. It looks at the options of using native breeds, ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the impact of disease, and improve the health of our soils which in turn improves its ability to capture carbon.

Doubtless there are critics out there, but ask yourself – why are we going back some 70 years in policy? I mean proposing a support mechanism for what should be ongoing good soil and stock husbandry! It simply reflects that our industry is not making enough profit to invest in the basics. Yes, you spotted it, I used the agriculture adviser’s ultimate swear word – PROFIT.

The QMS project will look at a wider range of issues in particular what is holding back development, innovation and profitability in the suckler industry. It will look at key areas such as supply chain development; innovation; market development; people; skills and sustainability.

The work will be done by means of focus groups and it is intended to take a wide range of views and ideas from the whole supply chain. I, like all of you, hope that this will deliver the next step on from the start the Beef Climate Scheme is making; with a report containing deliverable actions rather than vague aspirations.

Scotland Food and Drink is an organisation which assists companies to market food and drink products from our country. Currently food and drink from Scotland has a turnover of about £18bn. They have developed Ambition 2030 which aims to increase that turnover to £30bn by 2030. Now, that is a very ambitious target which has the backing of the Scottish Government. What is our role in this?

When Scotland Food and Drink was set up 16 sectors were identified and invited to develop supply chain plans. All bar three sectors did this and have benefitted from this. Two of the sectors that did not get involved with developing Scotland Food and Drink supply chain plans were Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb. QMS took up that role and have done a good job.

What benefits may or may not have accrued from being involved with Scotland Food and Drink is now pure conjecture and should be consigned to history.

The discussion now is how do we develop our supply chain plan and our involvement? How can we utilise and build on the skills, contacts and experience developed by Scotland Food and Drink? This is something we should explore as an industry. It is part of what the QMS Strategy to 2030 is all about and it needs your thoughts.

I have posed the question – is now the time for more discussion or hard talking? What is there to discuss? Plenty I would suggest.

Whatever you plan to do in life I have always found someone else has done it or something similar. So I go looking for these examples. So in this case what did I find?

Reuters reported the EU is investing €1.1trillion from their budget and borrowing an additional €750bn to fund recovery from the Covid 19 pandemic. A warning to EU states on January 7, was described to Reuters by three diplomatic sources that the plans lack structural reforms, strategic vision, concrete targets, and cost-effectiveness. Ring any bells?

Firstly why are we leaving all the strategic planning and vision to QMS? What role as individual producers can we play? We can take a cold look at what we are actually doing and ask where it will take us in four to five years and in 10 years. What questions should we be discussing?

How are our national herds and flocks structured? What is your vision for your part of the industry? What targets and expectations should we be setting for producers, processers, wholesalers? How do we build a cost effective, cost/benefit sharing and (swear word) profitable supply chain?

Other sectors have done it, why can’t livestock producers? What is stopping us?

For example in cattle we’ve seen the discussions within some breed societies about whether or not myostatin should be allowed into the breed. May I add my tuppence worth?

Why has this discussion arisen? What is driving the need for myostatin in some breeds? Why do some breeders want to integrate myostatin into breeds where it does not exist? Is it the popular drive for more and more extreme shape to compete in the show ring, a very small market in the big scheme of things with big overhead costs to business and beast? Some breeds are already well down the road with variant myostatins giving even more extreme muscling – to what end? What about the purposes breeds were developed for? Do they no longer matter?

Following the implications of variant myostatins logically I, and many others, fear for the increasing loss of maternal characteristics and consequently a functioning suckler industry.

There are, as far as I have thought it out so far, two options. First breeds go back to their traditional breed type, each suited to roles and environments such as hill, lowground, maternal, terminal.

Or second, within each breed, breeders declare the characteristics they are breeding for so purchasers know what they are buying will meet their needs e.g. terminal or maternal traits or both and provide the data to support their claim.

In the sheep sector it is well known that some 'top' breeding ewes have lost both quarters to mastitis yet are being flushed. Given that progeny from these genetics will be used to breed replacements in flocks; and there is evidence of a genetic component in mastitis; is the sheep sector too running into problems?

Is what we are breeding what the supply chain really needs? How much waste do our individual breeding and management policies create further down the supply chain e.g. poor conformation, over or under finished, disease? How do we get feedback on our production to help us improve?

All this is over and above the various disease issues which are not yet being tackled on an industry basis. Perhaps the Beef Climate Scheme will start some inroads to these issues in cattle and future climate schemes for other farming sectors will follow on.

There may be other ways to tackle these and other issues. I therefore invite you to contribute to the discussion in the SF letters column or why not write an article expressing your own views. Whatever your views are I feel it is important this conversation happens. It will help in developing the way we go forward.

Neil Young from the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland recently set out a vision – “We need to ensure we have a vibrant and progressive sector that young people want to join.” Do you think we have that at the present time? If not, what needs to change? How do we do that?

The QMS Suckler Strategy 2030 and Beef Climate Scheme work both have ambition. Will they deliver? What do you want them to deliver? What will hold them back from delivering?

How do we tackle the issues facing the industry that we need to address? Can we really afford to leave it to the “market” to sort it out? What could happen if we do that?

The real big question is – are farmers making enough money to be worth farming? Without that nothing will happen. How can we make that happen? How do we get a better share of the returns?

There is an awful lot going on right now so, is now the time for more discussion or hard talking?