Pen has gone to paper a bit earlier, due to various circumstances, not least Covid-19, plus the fact that if you are lucky with Royal Mail, you should receive this copy on the second day of the New Year!

Farming talk always includes the weather and 2020 has not been all bad, despite the fact that with nine days still to go (as I write this) my gauge is registering 49.5-inches – a new record in over 30 years, with 2002 the previous highest year at 49-inches.

If it is any consolation, the following year, 2003, was the driest at 25.75-inches – so let’s hope 2021 sets a new record in the other direction. I was told last month I may have set another new record when the Airdrie wedding registrar told me he had never heard of someone being best man to a friend nearly 60 years ago and then to his son a few weeks ago!

However, at least the silage stocks for the winter ahead have been very good. I have seen plenty of excellent silage, even though some weather windows had been short. Harvest time was similar and root crops in some areas have been challenging, but we have to remember we farm in Scotland and weather can be one of our disadvantages.

On the livestock front there certainly has not been many fortunes made. Pigs have been better, poultry, stable, sheep much better than expected, milk was ok but only if you have a supermarket contract, beef has been much improved since June but it needs to continue. That said, 2021 is going to see many changes. Leaving the EU will be one that I hope we shall not regret, but I fear we can leave the blame at David Cameron’s door and sadly today’s leading politicians are making it a costly and painful divorce.

Hearing them talking about their 'friends' in the EU is another pipe dream. At least Boris’ big US mentor (who at least brushes his hair), will disappear from the world stage!

One of the first changes to affect the beef sector at the start of January will be the termination of the current Agricultural Flat Rate VAT Scheme (AFRS) introduced in 1993 for small farmers in the EU. This had just over 1700 beneficiaries in all four UK nations. Changes are as follows:

* Businesses can join the AFRS when their annual turnover for farming activity is below £150,000 and remain in it until annual turnover for farming activity exceeds £230,000;

* Users must notify HMRC in writing if they are no longer eligible to use the scheme – ie when they go over the stated £230,000-mark.

Another possible change could be our much outdated grading system for prime cattle, the EUROP grid. This is certainly one item on which Jim Walker’s new scheme should focus!

The largest stumbling block to any changes, I am told, is the abattoirs and processors. You may recall four years ago when a North-east farm group, plus us, came back from Kansas – the message was clear: If we do not change, we will lose our market when the door opens to beef from around the world.

Before we joined the EU, apart from Ireland the bulk of our beef imports came from Commonwealth countries, like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Back in 1985, I judged Adelaide Show and spent three weeks visiting farms and judging club events.

During that time, wife Jesme and I felt a clear resentment to the UK for dropping imports from the Commonwealth, in favour of the EU. It makes me wonder if that resentment will occur between the UK and the EU because of food sourcing from anywhere in the world which our politicians assume will be cheap.

With that in mind, I contacted friends around the world in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Southern Ireland. Firstly, let me tell you where the highest paid beef farmers live – in Japan where beef per kg is £7, and Iceland at just over £5/kg. But I can also say there is no such thing as cheap beef anywhere in the world.

There is some cheaper beef around and there is what is called in the trade as 'distressed' beef (more later.) Why is there no so-called 'cheap' beef?

The answer is that, just as grain is a world price, there is no such thing as so-called grass fed cattle. Firstly, worldwide, there is a minute supply of so-called native, nearly properly finished cattle, and secondly, there is certainly no grass fed continental beef.

All those countries mentioned have been mainly on feed-lot finishing systems for the last 100 days-plus. They are largely maize silage fed plus shelled maize in their finishing diets.

It is only when you come to the Northern Hemisphere that grass and grass silage, plus cereals, feature in finishing diets. In world terms, that is a relatively small market.

So, where is this cheaper beef? The Southern Hemisphere countries have some advantages over us – scale, climate and virtually no housing costs.

Southern Ireland also has some advantages. The sector there has the highest level of Government support as well as the highest level of part-time farmers. It may also have the best grass growing conditions in the world, surely on a par with New Zealand.

Historically and currently, Ireland has been a large exporter to the UK and will continue to undermine us. In this new world of climate change and carbon emissions, it does not make sense to haul beef many thousands of miles around the world.

Where Ireland does lose out, though, could be on quality because of being dependent on the EUROP system. By far the majority of their cattle are continental, with big backsides, little flavour and neither taste or succulence. Just Google 'Elders Killara', where you will see cattle with which we will have to compete when the doors open again to the Commonwealth.

Let me explain 'distressed beef' and the need for labelling in every sector of the beef food chain. Having milked cows for 50 years, I am well aware that the last thing I checked at night and first thing in the morning, was that the condenser that cooled the bulk tank was working it was panic, as the milk would not be lifted if it was too warm.

All this imported beef is either frozen or chilled, which requires condensers to function 24 hours per day for long periods. Machines do break down, which brings me to distressed beef!

Only a few months ago, there was a container of Uruguayan ribeyes on the market in Central Scotland at a quarter of the normal price, with a very short 'use-by' limit on it. That could be called cheap beef and there is always be some that will take a gamble.

This causes distortion short term, which is the reason we need labelling on all beef imports, regardless of the market for which it is supplying .

So, what do we milk and beef farmers need to do about this call for a 25% reduction on production? In my opinion, I do not think we Scots will need to worry, because the ELM replacement for BPS in England will turn most it into wild life parks, covered in badgers, foxes, deer, birds of prey and every other kind of wild life you could mention.

The bonus will be, it will create a large export market for Scotch lamb, beef, milk, whisky and every other food product we produce in this country, to help feed the 60m south of the Border. This means that Fergus Ewing’s production-based support system will help us to feed our English neighbours and prevent them from being starved of quality food!

Who knows? Maybe Jim Walker’s programme to turn around our 12% drop in suckler cows back to a 12% increase, but for that to happen, keeping suckler cows needs to be more profitable.

Finally, while writing this, there was little hope of our produce crossing to France, because President Macron is giving Boris’s tail a twist! Reminds me of the 1960s and '70s, when lorry loads of sheep were stopped in France with lamb carcases set on fire. That all came to an end once we joined the EEC as it was called then.

Things have changed, with the devolved Nations. Could the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France be reconstructed and who knows, Scotch produce might get an open door into France?

Best of luck for 2021 in more ways than one!