Analysis of soils, slurry and forages have always been perceived as a way of improving levels of efficiency and an increasing number of farmers are looking to do just that in a bid to offset rocketing input costs that continue to send shockwaves through the industry.

With fertiliser, feed and fuel prices hitting new record levels on an almost daily basis, many have questioned the future viability of certain sectors within businesses. However, with huge anxiety surrounding global food security, farmers have to be able to support themselves and be encouraged to do so, according to Gavin Hill, senior beef specialist at SAC Consulting .

"The UK faces worldwide uncertainties so farmers should be encouraged to produce more food to reduce the country's reliance on imports," he told The SF, adding that national suckler cow herd has been falling for a number of years due to negative margins.

"Beef producers have felt for some time that measures imposed make it difficult or questionable for their systems to make ends meet. But, if quick fire decisions are made to reduce breeding numbers this does not mean the equivalent overheads (fixed costs ) associated with such animals are reduced at the same time.

"Instead, producers are left with reduced output but the same overhead costs having to be spread out amongst fewer numbers. It is therefore vital farmers look at cashflows and budget accordingly at all times."

He added that mixed enterprises often underestimate the positive contribution of what livestock offer cereals and vice versa.

"There is already a worldwide shortage of meat (proteins), so every livestock farmer has to be encouraged to produce food. Some 75% of Scotland is made up of Less Favoured Area, therefore farmers have to maximise the amount of food grown on that ground they have when the UK is only 65% self sufficient in beef. Livestock and environmental objectives have the ability to work well together in these areas instead of being looked at in isolation.

"The industry should not think that beef can be imported from New Zealand or Australia when those countries are already targeting Asian markets. And, why should beef from Ireland be accepted – Yes, it might fill a gap at times but it would be better if Scotland could increase beef production on its own, when increased beef from dairy herds is already occurring. Scotland cannot rely on imports from Ireland – if they see better markets arise elsewhere they could easily move towards them."

Mr Hill pointed out there are already signs of a shortage of beef cattle in the UK, with deadweight prices likely to rise in the coming weeks and months. In the past two weeks alone, base prices in Scotland have risen 10-15p per deadweight kg.

Furthermore, abattoirs have not been 'banking' carcases as they have been in the past, purely because there are not the cattle in the supply chain or the staff to butcher them. As a result, he said beef prices are on the way up with most centres offering base values of 420+p per deadweight kg this week, which will continue rising when there are not the store cattle to finish and a lot of the quality cattle are heading south.

"Store cattle values have been really strong in recent weeks due to increased competition from the English. They like the quality of Scottish cattle, the higher health status when they are clear of TB and they can easily fill a wagon load at live markets in Scotland. Scottish markets do a great job pulling in the big numbers for sale."

The only thing that may affect that trade is if an increased number come on the market in April, which are more grass types and some farmers decide to reduce fertiliser inputs or cut back on buying in grain. Hence, Mr Hill advised producers to look at current feed stock levels and plan ahead with priority given to feeding those cows and sheep about to produce young.

It is also questionable how many finishers will be looking to buy cattle for grass due to the huge rise fertiliser prices.

On a more positive note, Mr Hill added that many producers may not have to apply the same amount of fertiliser they have done in previous years.

"A lot of farmers don't realise what they already have on farm. If they analyse their soils, slurry and forages they might find that don't have to buy as much as they expected. More farmers are paying attention to the pH levels of their soils and increasing the amount of clover in swards, that they might only need a top up for a second cut silage.

"Similarly, the quality of their silage might be better and they won't have to buy in the same amount of concentrates they thought.

In saying that, even if additional fertiliser has to be bought in, Mr Hill believes ex-farm, beef, lamb and milk prices have to increase regardless of input costs.

"Consumers have to pay more for food and the beef price has to be nearer 440-450p per kg when the cost of finishing intensive cereal beef has risen from 136p per kg liveweight gain, this time last year to 213p this week, when fertiliser, fuel and feed prices are rising on an almost daily basis," he said.

Looking to the this year's forage crops, Mr Hill encouraged producers to make the best quality silage possible for youngstock, with bulk type forages fed for maintenance of dry cows etc.

Producers should also look to maximise rotational grazing and consider whether their farm type would allow reduced cost-based operations such as delayed housing, out wintering and introducing nitrogen fixing crops such as peas, beans and clovers.

"Look at what others are doing nearby. Getting together and sharing ideas can go along way to improve individual systems," concluded Mr Hill