By Alasdair Macnab

Last month I wrote about quarantine. I set you a challenge to spot the deliberate mistake in a table on quarantine offering a bottle of gin to the correct answer. I was certain someone would find the mistake and claim said bottle. Alas I was wrong.

Not surprised, but wrong. No-one replied. OK it was harvest time; a lot of you are running behind with reading so the prize is still there to claim Just e-mail Patsy Hunter with the answer. I’m certain someone will do it this month. Should I be certain, or uncertain of a reply?

Certainty is something we do not have at the moment with Brexit, possible election, collapsing beef trade, declining sheep market, fluctuating prices in cereals a weak pound. What we do have and always have had is uncertainty. It is said the only certain things in life are taxes and death, although with the current financial state of farming one of these might fall off our list.

What makes uncertainty less uncertain? Sorry if that sounds a bit complicated. I think I’m trying to convey the thought of how can we reduce uncertainty in our day to day lives and businesses.

I’ve talked about stress and not coping with life before. Uncertainty is a trigger. We all get these days, weeks and periods where it feels whatever we do we are uncertain about what will happen. My good lady can anticipate everything that could go wrong or is that a woman thing?

We are all concerned about the current state of the industry. Add to that the start of new cycles of putting tups out, weaning calves, sales, sowing winter crops all with no guarantee of the returns.

There are things we can all do to reduce uncertainty, so that even when things go awry, it works. That comes from knowing as much about your business as you can. What do I mean by that?

Your business has a cost to run, has a cost to pay your wage and pension, a cost for reinvestment in machinery, stock or assets and if it is your style, to expand. There is also the personal cost of pressure from borrowing, margins, disasters, failures and pressure to repeat the successes. There are the external unseen costs, deaths, disease and diet.

These can easily push someone into the same place as actress Denise Welch who bravely spoke out about depression this week. What can we do?

Importantly, watch our neighbours, friends, acquaintances for signs of withdrawal, not joining in, making excuses not to attend. Where you note this, find an hour to call in for a chat. It’s amazing what it means to someone who is struggling just for you to call in to get the crack. Any reason will do, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is you make someone feel loved, needed and wanted.

Currently times are not good. This is the best time to look at your business critically and dispassionately. It’s a good time to get someone external to look at what you are doing and challenge your reasons for doing it.

It is quite enlightening and quite upsetting at the same time. It can feel that you’ve been made to look incapable. Not so. It is a wakeup call. We had such a call 10 years ago. Result? We stopped growing barley and moved to a share farming cereals. It took the pressure off a very busy time of year and eliminated a worrying financial risk with growing barley. Yes we still lose money on it but we know exactly how much we were losing. Phew!

Have you heard talk of data, big data and metadata? Don’t worry, it just means information and the relative amounts of information being processed to give answers. All industry works on data today. It is essential for running modern businesses. What data do you use?

The pig, poultry and dairy industries are decades ahead of the rest of farming with using data. Cereal farmers use soil analysis data, yield data, weather data, crop performance data and you can see the advances in yield and quality when the weather works with us. Beef and sheep farmers are catching up or are they?

What data is available to beef and sheep farmers? Plenty I would argue, if you want to use it, if you can understand it, if you can interpret it, if you’re using the right data systems.

A columnist in another publication told his readers he is giving up performance recording his sheep. Why? Not enough are recording and no-one believes it. Come on folks it’s proven science.

Stories have emanated for years from cattle breed societies about economies with the truth, questions of honesty, integrity and an undermining of the value of science. Yes, these things go on. We are dealing with humans here. This does not devalue or stop the long-term gain to be made from EBV, genomic and myostatin data.

Performance data is a key factor in improving margins in beef and sheep particularly for traits such as calving and lambing ease, birth weight etc. It is essential breeders have this data and the capabilities to use it. Contrary to some views, EBVs by the nature of the spreading of genetics through a breed will settle down as the accuracy improves with use. Their use contributes to reducing uncertainty.

This brings me back to uncertainty. By gaining as much knowledge about your business, what you are producing and applying new data to it you can reduce uncertainty.

How many of you actually make the effort to track your stock to the abattoir? How many get a butcher onto your farm and ask what they will pay the top price for in your stock and why? How many of you take your sale receipts and work out which animals give the best financial returns and build your herd or flock around them?

They are not always the ones you would pick out by your eye. I recall hearing an American farmer saying it’s what makes money that counts. If it’s ugly and it’s making money you’ll learn to like it. Pride can cost money; it can cost your health. Much of this learning can be gained at knowledge exchange meetings which are also a good opportunity to invite someone who has been struggling out to socialise for a wee while.