Basil Lowman is celebrating his 50th year as beef specialist with SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College. In this first of a three-part series, we explore his early years and the rapid progress that was made in beef production, supported by his team’s research.

THERE ARE few people who have been as deeply immersed in the progression of Scotland’s iconic beef sector as Basil Lowman, a beef specialist with SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

He started his role in 1970, when Richard Nixon was the US President, Rhodesia severed its ties with Britain, and Jimi Hendrix died of a suspected drug overdose.

The start of his career may have been in a very different era, but the principles of the advice that he gives has endured. It is practical and underpinned by the science that SRUC undertakes. Fundamentally, it is advice that is focused on making farm businesses more efficient, better managed and more profitable.

The applied research that Basil and his team have undertaken over the years includes pioneering work in the condition scoring of suckler cows, synchronising oestrus for artificial insemination of beef cattle and the development of maternal Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs).

Basil said: “My philosophy is that the farmers I advise need the answer to one question, which is what would you do in my position? What farmers don’t want to hear is, leave it with me, I’ll do the research and come back to you in six years.”

Andrew Lacey, head of SAC Consultancy described the value of being part of SRUC: “It makes the foundations of our advice fundamentally different to other agrifood consultants, because it is – and always has been – backed by applied scientific research. But what’s also critical is that it’s industry feedback which directs much of the science that we undertake.

“Basil’s career shows how important this feedback loop is from farm to scientist and back to farm. It ensures that advice that we give addresses the sector’s emerging challenges.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Basil has been an inspirational adviser to beef farming for 50 years

Tumultuous 1970s

The 1970s was a tumultuous time for agriculture,. Countries had emerged from the deprivation of the Second World War, people started consuming more red meat, bread and poultry, bringing boom times for grain farmers, but correspondingly difficult times for livestock producers.

Prime Minister, Ted Heath, took the country into the European Economic Community (EEC), and in 1974 the fuel crisis hit farmers and horticulturalists hard.

The child of an engineer (his father) and a teacher (his mother), Basil’s love of cows started at a young age with a toy farm and holidays to a Cornish holiday house that overlooked a farm. “Cows are wonderful animals and I’ve always had a fascination for them,” he said.

Into his teens, holidays with an aunt in Worcestershire led him to working on a farm from the age of 15. His goal was to teach school children about farming, but a bicycle accident left him unable to pursue this path, which is why he decided to go to university.

He studied a degree and PhD in Animal Production at Reading University, and on graduation, he successfully applied for the job as beef specialist, under Ken Runcie, at the East of Scotland College of Agriculture, now part of SRUC.

The role combined on-farm advice and applied research, as it still does for Basil and his SAC Consultancy colleagues. “My early career gave me a comprehensive view of the industry,” he said. “The sector’s research and the need for precision – and it has allowed me to base the advice that I’ve given on the best-known facts at the time.”

In his early career, the dairy and beef sectors were very separate and there was little crossover and learning between the two, something that he soon addressed.

The Scottish Farmer:

Taking part in on-farm press visits was all part of the deal for Basil. Here he's pictured with 'the boy' Gavin Hill, and journalists, the late Dan Buglass and Andrew Arbuckle

Blue-grey coos

“We had a herd of 30 pedigree Galloways that lived on the hill, which we crossed to a Whitebred Shorthorn bull to produce Blue-grey cows. These were then mated to AA bulls in our spring and autumn calving herds” he explained.

“Just six months after I started, I was presented with five in-calf Blue-grey heifers, a five-stall byre and a portable milking machine and told to find out the composition of their milk and how much milk a calf consumed.

“Though, as is always the case with research, it always raises more questions and the need for more research. So, a year later, we started a major research project using the increasingly common Hereford cross Friesian crossed to one of the first Charolais bulls in Scotland.”

Silage was a keen area of research during the 1970s, resulting in a transformation for ruminant farmers from a rudimentary feed to something more valuable.

“Silage had been studied in the second world war, but it wasn’t really taken up practically until the 1950s and early 1960s. Apparently, one of the first Scottish silage towers was built on James Cruickshank’s farm, in Aberdeenshire, in the early 1900s.

“The year 1974 was a turning point for our team. We had a training session for advisors and did an economic assessment of moving from hay to silage – 90% of the advisors said that it wasn’t financially viable to make the shift. However, the practicalities of silage appealed to farmers because it gave some independence from the weather.”

This drove the need for more research to improve the silage-making process and quality, as well as how it was tested, moving from starch equivalent to metabolisable energy (ME).

The 1970s was an era of relative financial security and huge progress for agriculture. Basil said: “It was the era of food from our own resources and farmers were protected by fixed minimum prices which gave a lot of confidence because they knew that they had a base price against which to budget.”

Growth promoters

The era was also one of looking at all sorts of technologies, Basil notes, such as growth promoters, and feed additives including Flavamycin and Ralgro. “Many of these came from the US and France, and it was interesting to research their use and their impact on performance,” pointed out Basil.

A trademark of his approach was to take research beyond just animal performance and often the team would record the impact of a treatment or system on animal behaviour and wellbeing, which harks back to Basil’s love of 'coos'.

Kirsten Williams, beef and sheep consultant with SAC Consulting, described Basil as a complete inspiration. “He has been instrumental in driving the efficiency of the Scottish beef industry and mixes science, research and practical knowledge to ensure that the latest science is being pushed out at a farm level.

“Basil is a fountain of knowledge and always dives into work and conversations with the energy and enthusiasm of someone a quarter of his age. He can be extremely challenging and push people to think and talk round how they got to their conclusion, in a way that quite often ignites different thinking and often a different conclusion.”

(Look out for Part Two of this three-part series in the coming weeks)