FUTURE FARMING support in Scotland is undergoing a transformation that promises to recognise, reward, and support active farming – ensuring no working businesses fall through the net.

Though Brexit and Covid-19 will continue to dominate policy discussions and budgets in the New Year, the Scottish Government has made clear its intention to roll out a transition funding scheme for agriculture which will support the sector tackle another impending challenge – climate change.

The new Suckler Beef Climate Scheme, that was proposed in the autumn as a funding blueprint from which other sectors would follow, is aimed at encouraging best practice and management in suckler beef systems. The scheme will reward farmers for delivering climate and environmentally friendly outcomes and offer financial support to help businesses realise their full potential.

With a provisional date set for March, 2021, to start phasing in changes, the scheme aims to pave the way for a smooth transition to a new agricultural support structure which will be put in place after the Common Agricultural Policy comes to an end in 2024.

Unlike under the CAP, all businesses will be eligible to apply, regardless of whether they are a landowner, tenant or landless keeper, as long as they are actively farming. It is hoped that this will pave the way for new entrants into the sector who have been stifled under the former systems.

The SF recently caught up with Mull-based Claire Simonetta, who was part of a group of 10 progressive farmers who were tasked with gathering evidence and proposing a scheme which they believed was meaningful and deliverable on-farm. She was singled out for her part in shaping the Suckler Beef Climate Group’s report, which was a catalyst for the proposed scheme.

“We were clear from the start that although our remit was to focus on coming up with a scheme to address climate change, the idea was always to support active farmers to produce quality food but ensure production practices are sustainable and climate friendly,” she explained.

“Whether you are for or against Brexit, we have a chance here to drive real change in our sector whilst simplifying the process, better targeting payments and reinvigorating the whole industry.

“This new voluntary scheme is open to all and is hoping to eventually simplify the whole payment structure, rather than continue multiple different schemes which are complicated for farmers to follow and for the government to deliver.”

She explained that recognition and reward will be given to those top farmers who are already ‘up there’ producing food in a climate and environmentally friendly way, but support will be made available for businesses which require help to reach that level.

Coming up with a scheme which takes into account the diversity of production systems across Scotland had its challenges, but Ms Simonetta hopes that the final proposals will be embraced by lowland rearer/finishers and hill store producers alike.

The new scheme is underpinned by common requirements and goals across the beef sector. However, it will be left up to the individual businesses to decide how they meet those objectives, taking in to account their farming set-up.

For example, improved nutrient management is one of the key areas where the scheme hopes to propose one common outcome but let farmers choose the activity that best fits with their system so long as it delivers on the target.

This could include a reduced reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, which can be achieved in many different ways including the use of variable rate application equipment, making better use of organic manure as a free source of N, or including legumes within grass swards and crop rotations.

“Another option might include better replacement heifer management to reduce the number of ‘unproductive’ youngstock on the farm, for example by reducing the age at calving to cut out an additional age group, or increasing cow longevity to reduce the number of replacement stock kept per age group,” Ms Simonetta suggested.

“Reducing your age at calving can work well in lowland systems which support quicker growth and development of animals where there is a good focus on nutrition to fulfil the genetic potential. Whereas, further up the hill, farmers could focus on working with cows that are chosen for good longevity and which go on to produce more calves across their lifetime.”

The scheme will target six main areas of production which have been identified as having the greatest potential to reduce net greenhouse gas efficiencies by improving performance and input utilisation, maintaining current soil carbon stores, and supporting further soil carbon sequestration where this is possible.

The Scottish Government’s ‘Climate Change Plan’ has identified the beef sector as responsible for 46% of all emissions produced within Scottish agriculture – based on the current calculator. However, the emissions intensity of a suckler beef system can be reduced through the adoption of best practice and with the help of new knowledge and innovative technology including, for example, good cattle health management.

Ms Simonetta explained: “Focusing on animal health and welfare management can deliver distinct benefits at so many levels – a healthier herd inevitably has better fertility, and less time is spent having to deal with health issues.

“This allows farmers to dedicate more time to good stockmanship, return greater profits but ultimately this will also lead to a more environmentally-friendly farming system because animals are thriving and able to turn inputs into good productivity. It also makes the hard work worthwhile and much more enjoyable for everybody.

“All members of the scheme will need to address soil health too, as this the most important resource on the farm from a production point of view but also in terms of holding carbon and absorbing it out of the atmosphere,” she continued.

“We want farmers with poor soils which are depleted in carbon stocks to focus on carbon sequestration and those who have soils saturated with carbon to prioritise maintaining those carbon stocks.”

She added that everyone zoned in on maximising carbon sequestration but stressed there must also be recognition that there are already big areas in Scotland holding vast amounts of carbon which require specific management to ensure it is not released into the atmosphere.

“A really important message for farmers is that those who are looking after carbon in their soils are doing just as good, or as important a job as those sequestering it and this scheme will make sure to recognise this.”

A major selling point to farmers to take up the new scheme is its promise to reduce complexity or excessive form-filling, in a bid to free up advisors to provide advice which can take the industry forward, rather than being bogged down by paperwork.

“We know it will take years to achieve, but we intend to overhaul the advisory structure in Scotland and free up time for technical advice to help businesses become resilient and improve efficiency,” she continued.

One of the benefits of rolling out the pilot scheme before the full structure comes in to place in 2024 is it gives the industry time to iron out any issues with its format and feedback any necessary changes.

“This is not a continuation of the Beef Efficiency Scheme,” assured Ms Simonetta. “This is a new scheme which has tried to take note of lessons from past schemes and make sure not to repeat previous mistakes.”

The scheme’s board  is in the process of preparing an interim proposal to be put to Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing and RPID, who will then give it the green light from an admin point of view.

“We hope to submit our final recommendations in February and begin phasing in the subsidy climate scheme over the coming years.

“It will be a step-by-step process which will initially focus on quick and achievable deliverables for farmers that will then gradually evolve as time goes on, forming the basis for an overarching payment scheme incorporating all sectors of Scottish agriculture,” she concluded.