'The reality is that we are facing painful feed increases in the future and the cost of food to the consumer will have to rise. There is no way primary producers can continue to produce food with such increased costs and be able to survive, let alone have a margin'

August produced a grass explosion that, to say the least, has been difficult to manage in many cases – especially after cattle and sheep have had a taste of either silage aftermaths or re-seeds!

They certainly do not want to eat any older swards that have been grazed since the spring and in any case, how much feed value is in that grass now is open to question, especially in September.

A revolution in keeping dairy cows started back in the 1960s when cows moved from byres to cubicles, with 90% plus milk cows and their replacements now housed in cubicles, which in many cases are the ultimate in cattle comfort. Maybe the same revolution now needs to take place in the beef sector because of high production costs and also a reducing availability of straw and other alternatives.

For example, straw varieties in oat, wheat, and barley are much shorter, plus digesters and burners are gobbling up crops and silage all over the country. Speaking to a friend in Lincolnshire recently, he tells me there is one not far from him that uses a large Hesston bale every minute, 24 hours per day, every day of the year. Just imagine how much straw that consumes in a year!

I have also been told that there have been five digesters commissioned on the east side of Scotland in the past few months that require a minimum of 2000 acres each to keep them fed and that is having a vast impact on the amount available for cattle feed. Unfortunately, I only see a reduction in the availability of straw and timber by-products continuing, resulting in a cost increase that livestock farmers just cannot afford. Hence why I think the beef sector needs to follow dairy farmers in housing all beef cattle.

I first housed beef cattle in cubicles in 1972 and have been doing it ever since. Another advantage with cubicles and slurry, as opposed to dung, is its fertiliser value. Eleven years ago we invested in going from slurry storage of six weeks to almost seven months which meant we could apply the slurry when grass best utilised it.

This reduced our bagged fertiliser use from 130 tonnes per year to 20. It is not difficult to do show the effect of that on budgets, or the environment.

What we need now is for government to bring back capital grants for cubicles, or alternative housing and slurry storage that, incidentally, are available elsewhere in the UK and Ireland. That would do much more for the environment than a lot of the current so-called environmental schemes.

Another challenge facing all livestock farmers, is feed costs for winter ahead. The reality is that we are facing painful feed increases in the future and the cost of food to the consumer, will have to rise. There is no way primary producers can continue to produce food with the increased costs facing us and be able to survive, let alone leave a margin.

The cause of farming’s continual down turn in margins has been accelerated as a result of supermarket power, driven by the race to the bottom – which has been accelerated by the two main discounters! Now, the big five are trying to hold their footfall by following them, which means only one thing – squeezing suppliers.

The only glimmer of hope we have is the fact that several news headlines have highlighted the dire situation in which many farmers are finding themselves, which could lead to food shortages. Couple that with the dreaded 'Brexit' and there is now a sure feeling of nervousness around, not only in farming, but in the whole UK economy.

It has been reported by several milk producers that the West of Scotland Tesco milk suppliers meeting that took place a few weeks ago turned out to be ill-tempered and ended in a near riot. It could have been even more fractious had it not been the fear of being black-listed by Tesco!!

I am also well informed that several of those attending are considering termination of their contract with Tesco due to draconian conditions with which they will have to comply. One example is calf rearing, maintaining they have to be reared in pairs or more – what nonsense!

As one young new-father informed Tesco, his new baby in the maternity hospital was not put beside another baby to keep it company, so why should baby calves be different . There would certainly be an outcry about the ethics of that idea!

Also, if a calf has to go in a single pen the farmer has to get a vet certificate giving the reason why! I think those whizz kids from Tesco – who probably have never seen a calf rearing unit in their lives, should read my colleague, Pat Wilson’s column in The SF on September 1 about rearing calves. In fact, the best education they could have would be to spend a month on a dairy farm, where they would learn a lot of common sense from the rearers, especially the women!

I am getting mixed reports from the dairying world, one being that dairy farms are in good shape, even to the extent that milking cows might just be the most profitable sector in farming today, to the opposite where I am being clearly informed that the increased cost of producing milk today is not being covered by the processors’ most recent small increases of a penny or two. In fact, one large milk producer made it abundantly clear the other day that he needs 4p higher than this time last year to be a fraction more than breaking even!

Finally, to beef and the need for me to be more explicit on my thoughts of last month, when, due to a typing error, a few lines were missed out. I was remarking on the take-over of the three operations of the Two Sisters in the UK by Kepak, from Ireland. In the short term, I said it would not be the worst scenario for the suppliers.

What were omitted were my thoughts, longer term. We are now down to three Irish-based companies – ABP, Dawn Meats and Kepak – in control of 60% of UK and all Ireland total cattle kill, with Scotbeef being the largest in Scotland and probably the fourth in UK terms. With beef processing in such few hands, can that be good for competition long term?

The counter to that question was raised the other day when it was pointed out that there were around 10 farmer finishers in Scotland who kill over 2000 cattle on average per year and all expanding. It seems to be the way of the world! The big get bigger with the smaller businesses finding it ever more difficult to survive and this is one of the reasons why Scotland has the largest average farm size in the EU28.

We have been driven down that route because of economics which has been the case for at least 100 years and it appears to be continuing into the future.