WE ARE now into the second half of 2020 already – and what a first half it has been!

The history writers will have these unprecedented times well documented. So far, Scotland has fared better than some other parts of the world, largely due to our tough First Minister and her advisors, particularly Professor Jason Leitch. I have to admit, though, I did not always agree with Nicola, especially about the 2m rule.

The other bonus Scotland has had is our sparsely populated country, the only exception being the Central Belt, so let us hope the second half of 2020 is less traumatic than the first and that Nicola receives a little credit, even from those who do not support her, for her handling of this situation.

One aspect of ‘lockdown’ that I have not enjoyed is that, for the first time in my life, I have not been able to attend auction markets for such a prolonged period. Since I bought my first pair of gilts at 12, I have been a market supporter, first with pigs, then dairy, from 1964, and latterly beef since 1972, as I enjoy the company and banter with like-minded people.

However, I have learnt a new skill! I can now operate a laptop which has allowed me to watch several sales. Top of my list is ANM, Thainstone, where John Angus is not only easy to listen to, but also presents all the information you need on the screen.

I even follow the Irish markets and saw 6000 head being sold in Manitoba a few days ago where the auctioneer was almost as difficult to understand as Paul Spencer, at Dingwall!

Due to new found laptop knowledge, it has been interesting for me to be able to go on to Youtube for ‘Feeder flash packer profiteers’, to hear a US auctioneer give his views on the beef market there. The down side is converting lbs to kg and dollars to sterling, but it becomes easier with practice!

The last time I put pen to paper was at the start of the recovery period of almost two years of depressed values for prime beef. So, what caused this unprecedented 10p per kg rise for four consecutive weeks?

Two factors – shortage of cattle and increased demand – but why were we short of prime cattle? 1), There are fewer beef cows and their progeny around, due to depressed returns over those two years; and 2), a large number of nearly finished cattle were put out to grass in the UK and all Ireland because of depressed values.

These are now coming back to market, particularly in Ireland, where slaughter numbers increased, in one week alone, by more than we slaughter in a week! In fact, last week, there were more cattle slaughtered in all Ireland than there was in Scotland, England and Wales put together!

However, it might just be a bit of Irish spin! Apparently, the state aid that’s coming their way was to be paid out on all cattle killed up to the end of June ... so that might explain the big numbers. That means the high kill numbers might only flood the market for a couple of weeks. Time will tell.

Northern Ireland’s beef finishers are to receive £7m in Covid-19 support, which breaks down to: All cattle slaughtered from mid-February until the end of June, will receive £33 per head; and those killed from the third week of March for 7 weeks get an additional £40 per head.

Other sectors are also to receive financial support in Northern Ireland and Eire farmers are also to receive €50m, though the division has still to be announced!

Now I know that the Scottish Beef Association chairman, David Barron, has approached Fergus Ewing on the subject, but where are the NFU? Are they fast asleep; maybe they should learn a thing or two from Ireland about how to extract money from Government?

So now that our prime beef, on a deadweight basis, is back to where it should be, what are the chances of it staying there? Nobody in their wildest predictions could have foreseen the 40p per kg rise, so I think the same applies as to where the future beef price will be. Nobody has a clue.

No doubt the Irish cartel will decide and there is not a lot we producers can do about it, except hope that the Irish supply remains tight, because no matter what happens here, it is Ireland that makes the decisions now.

Add to that, that we are now only six months from ending our EU membership, which could quite possibly be without a deal, and no matter what Johnston and Truss say about protecting UK farmers, I do not trust a word they promise.

So, how are we going to compete with beef pouring in from Australia, Canada and the US (or anywhere else from where they can source it cheaply)? There is a lot of talk about hormone-treated meat from the US, but in my view that’s not the real issue. It is the regulations that we have which considerably add to our costs, compared to what fellow beef producers have elsewhere in the world.

As far as beef is concerned, I can tell you from my own experience of Aussie, Canadian and US beef that their product, in many cases, is as good as ours and probably more consistent. If we do not improve our consistency of our product very soon, our market will be flooded with quality foreign beef that is consistent.

What do we need to do to compete with imported beef?

  • Make better use of our natural product – grass, either grazed, or as excellent silage, eg dairy cow quality!
  • We need fewer breeds, with more natives able to be finished on grass or silage as a larger part of the diet with the lowest cost of added energy as possible.
  • We still need to reduce average weights by around 20kg in order to achieve that, but the processor packers will have to pay a significantly larger premium on lighter cattle. In other words, more of a carrot instead of a stick for over-weight cattle.

This would all happen much more quickly if we had a change in the grading system of prime cattle from shape to quality, because all the imported beef from the aforementioned countries will be graded to a very different spec’ to what we use. Their systems have only one target: A product that consumers want to buy again on a regular basis, with taste, flavour and succulence.

A lot of Scotch beef does match that criteria, but there is too much that fails to do so. A few days after you read this, our hospitality sector will be back in business, with hotels and restaurants trying their best to cope with all the new regulations that will have to be in place, no doubt, at a cost. Let us hope that there is enough excellent Scotch beef to satisfy demand.

Farmers’ favourite subject is the weather. June’s rainfall here, at 5.25-inches, is the second highest in over 30 years – beaten by 2012 when 6.5-inches was recorded. Surprisingly, so far we have had 22.25-inches in the first six months, which means that to end up on our average, we have only 16-inches to come in the next six months!

Finally, a few comments about memorable Royal Highland Shows resulting in celebration kist parties and strawberries! First achievement was in 1964 when my father won the Ayrshire championship with Gartmillan May and I led her out in front of a packed ringside.

Later, in 1976, I won the Holsteins with Radar Jean and a few years later our big red and white Holstein, Fearless Jan, took the top award. We also had several reserves.

There is no doubt, no matter what breed at the Highland, winning the ultimate award of a red, white and blue rosette gives one an overwhelming feeling of pride and satisfaction that not much else in life can really match.

It has certainly been greatly missed this year, but well done to the The SF’s organisation of the kist parties and thank you to all the lovely singers, especially Kate Picken and her daughter, Jennifer, who sang what I think should be our national anthem, Caledonia.