When returning from the Service of Thanksgiving at Carfraemill for the life of well-known local beef and sheep farmer, Ronnie Anderson, my mind wandered to a tale my father told of a funeral held around 80 years ago at nearby Channelkirk.

At that time, working folk occasionally tasted lamb of often doubtful provenance, but beef was a rare luxury. The staple meat was rabbit. Few under 70 years of age could ever imagine the size of the rabbit industry then.

I vaguely remember its last days when Willie Miller, the local contractor, employed around a dozen trappers. The rabbits left rural areas throughout the land in their thousands of tonnes by lorry and train for the big cities. The massive industry ended almost overnight with the advent of myxomatosis in 1952.

James Sharp, of Heriot Mill, farmed extensively throughout the Borders. His pawky sayings were much quoted. Despite farming in a big way, times were so hard between the world wars that every penny counted.

His diversification was catching the rabbits in his farms. On the way to the funeral at Channelkirk he looked his snares. Before he got there, in the interest of decorum he covered his victims, which filled the back seat of the car to the top of the front seat, with a sack.

When he arrived at the church the weather had turned nasty and the only people there were the minister and the dead man’s brother. “Dar’say,” he exclaimed, “there’s more rabbits than folk at this funeral.”

While rabbits have gone their way, worries are now about the future of suckler beef production. Beef farmers are losing money and great minds are at work turning things around before beef becomes merely a by-product of the dairy herd.

At the recent meat conference in Glasgow, Rod Polkinghorne was a speaker. I remember A similar talk he gave several years ago in Edinburgh about how consumption of beef had risen in Australia because their breeders had concentrated on eating quality.

Beef packers in North America, too, pay more for highly marbled beef which has influenced the type of cattle their breeders’ favour.

Some time after Rod Polkinghorne’s address, I visited USA on the search for new genetics. On my return, I wrote of my disappointment at the variable quality of local steaks compared with those that I ate on my trip.

Letters of outrage appeared the next week in The Scottish Farmer from a local butcher, a wholesaler and a farmer who, as he hadn’t seen me recently in the primestock market a St Boswells agreed with the wholesaler that my knowledge of the beef industry was zero.

It seems now that the tide is turning and, even if produced in a high welfare and environmentally sympathetic way, the extremely lean and heavily muscled animal which dominates primestock shows doesn’t rate so highly on the dinner table.

Other than as a vehicle for Fergus Ewing to deliver a political message, I question how much new came from the conference. The meat industry is, after all, relatively mature and methods of rearing, slaughter and cooking are well understood.

All research has shown that first calving at two years of age, except in a hill situation, is more profitable – yet many still calve heifers at three. It has been shown time and again that finishing high performance cattle quickly leaves a higher margin (and fewer greenhouse gasses) – yet too many are harvested at two years old and over.

EBVs are an accurate assessment of the potential of breeding stock – but still many regard visual assessment as better. How many finishers have knowledge of the sires of the cattle they buy or is the criterion still that they look good value on the day?

The solution to our problems must, in part, be in adopting methods already proven to be best practice, rather than just working harder.

In my youth, assistance at calving was rare and few sat up with their cows through the night. In our quest for muscle, we no longer have this luxury and at the same time overseas visitors claim that our beef is less tasty that theirs.

We tell our politicians to keep out meat from overseas as it doesn’t match our standards. What do we say when it is hormone-free, tastes better and is cheaper?

I was very sympathetic to well-known Shorthorn breeder, Jack Ramsay’s letter in The Scottish Farmer about myostatin. We sell all the bulls from one of our Angus herds on farm and without question those which carry a single copy of the myostatin gene are easily sold. Our clients know that their offspring will be sold in market that rewards shape.

Alasdair Macnab also wrote an excellent article on the myostatin gene on February 1. I agree with everything he has said, however his echoing of the British Limousin Cattle Society claim that the F94L variant of the gene increases muscle fibre size with no associated increase in calving difficulty, deserves qualification.

The myostatin gene is only a secondary factor in calving. The primary factor is the resulting increase in muscularity. To claim that the gene will not increase calving difficulties as a generality may be true, but when at the same time breeders select generation after generation within the F94L parameter for extreme muscularity and for animals that are ever wider across the hooks, one thing cancels out another.

The virtues of the myostatin gene remain controversial. However, as long as our cattle are graded on the EUROP system, cattle carrying a single copy of it will remain popular.

What can’t be argued is that while the myostatin gene increases yield and can be tender, it reduces marbling and in my mind, consequently consumer satisfaction.

Saving our suckler herd may require less conference and more application of existing research and successful experience in the field.

Cattle farmers know that while it hardly requires a magician, there’s more to it than pulling a rabbit from a hat.