I had hoped ... New Year, new scenario!

How wrong! The Covid-19 situation is even worse than before, despite the rolling out of the vaccine! It makes it hard to look forward.

Just when we thought 2020 had been resigned to the history books as one of the most challenging, the months ahead don’t look too promising. Again, we are braced for weeks of disruption.

Markets are back operating on a drop-off-and-go basis with farmers only hoping their livestock will be sold to their optimum. The marts are, though, trading with minimal disruption after introducing social distancing measures to keep everyone safe.

The show season that wasn’t looks like it might repeat itself. Some of this summer’s shows have already been called off, the most recent being Northumberland, Ayr and Fife. Many others are hanging in the balance.

We are all charged with trying to help bring this pandemic under control, however these rules don’t appear to apply to the Health and Safety executive in South-west Scotland. Officers have been visiting farms to make sure Covid-19 precautions are in place to prevent its spread.

HSE is confident all staff have adhered to strict secure protocols. NFU Scotland has described the visits as wholly unacceptable but said if such inspections are deemed essential, advance notice must be asked for.

If there’s anything positive to come out of all this, it’s that we can be proud of keeping the nation fed and watered. Farmers are up there with NHS staff as key workers.

Although we did have to dump thousands of litres of milk, despite supermarket sales soaring, 2020 has been branded one of the sector’s finest hours. We’ve kept products on shelves. Local butchers’ shops are bursting at the seams with no option of a visit to restaurants.

This, in turn, has led to a much better than expected start to 2021 with both cattle and sheep prices significantly up on the year. January isn’t a great month to sell prime stock at the best of times, never mind at the height of a pandemic.

Dead weight cattle are almost £4 per kg, which is unheard of at this time of year. One we deal with, McIntosh Donald, to name but one, had increased its price by as much as 15p per kg.

This fresh lock down is without a doubt depressing, however it has actually bolstered trade. If this doesn’t lead to confidence in the sector, nothing will. Just imagine if milk was to rise by 15p a litre!

As if Covid-19 isn’t making us nervous enough, we had the added worry of a no trade deal being reached. Thankfully, we could all breathe a huge sigh of relief as negotiations in Europe finally led to deal being struck at the 11th hour. I’m not naïve enough to believe that what’s to come will be frictionless and that there will still be some volatility in the market.

NFU president, Minette Batters, warned that new checks, paperwork and requirements on traders will add costs and complexity. In fact, I have it on good authority that checks are indeed very rigorous and are taking anything from 2½ to six or seven hours! Despite this, there is still a demand for our goods in the EU with the export market trade unaffected by us exiting Europe. If anything, demand is greater than before.

Boris Johnson pledged to continue to support the country’s farming industry when it operated outside the single market. He has also said he wouldn’t rule out tariffs on EU products which don’t meet the UK’s high standards. Let’s hope this isn’t just lip service.

The last thing we want is our high standards of animal welfare compromised. That means the challenges facing producers will be unprecedented. More than ever, we will need to account for how we operate our businesses.

Having an accreditation assurance scheme, such as Red Tractor – which I know is unloved by farmers, but which is recognised by consumers – will be essential. As consumer needs and expectations change, our standards must evolve to meet them.

Apparently, more than 20m shoppers now look for the Red Tractor on food. It has become the most trusted food marque in the country. Well, that is unless you’re Ian Potter. He says it’s not fit for purpose and in his opinion the scheme needs to significantly up its game, or get out.

In an article in this month's Dairy Farmer, I didn’t know whether to laugh or greet! It was an on-farm feature saying lowering the age at first calving has an impact on carbon footprint. Apparently, less methane is emitted during rearing when animals are consuming inputs and not producing milk.

By targeting fast early growth rates, the 35 heifers reared annually on this Pembrokeshire farm calve at 22 months. Most supermarkets want producers to calve at 24 months and certainly at no more than 26.

In an ideal world, calving young certainly does make economic sense and has a positive influence on farm footprints. Cows don’t start to make money until they’re into their second lactation, so in principle the earlier they calf, the better.

However, we do not live in an ideal world and some heifers simply aren’t big enough to calf at two. Science is a great thing, but so is nature – sometimes we need to let nature takes its course.

On a sombre note, I want to touch on one of the biggest and indeed saddest, challenges facing our industry – that of mental health. Research has highlighted its increasing gravitas. One farmer each week takes their own life, one-in-four will be diagnosed with a mental illness and the overall illness rate for those in agriculture is 46% higher than the average across all industries.

The DPJ Foundation was set up following the death of Daniel Picton-Jones. It was set up by Daniel’s widow with the aim to support those in agriculture suffering poor mental health. It produced a powerful image showing 52 pairs of wellies, one pair for each farmer who has taken their own life in the last 12 months. It is certainly very poignant.

More than ever, we need to raise awareness of mental illness. Through good mental health comes the resilience we need as we face these unpredictable times. Farmers are noted for not being great at opening up about their problems. The hardest part is admitting something is wrong.

Calls to helplines have been steadily increasing throughout the coronavirus crisis, but it certainly isn’t the primary factor, it’s an added one! It comes on top of Brexit, money worries, weather and social isolation.

Normally, we would be looking forward to socialising at the show season. Alas many cancellations already means that this important conduit for social interaction is already being removed, thus adding to the ever pressing burden of 'will we ever get out of this?'

Many people have turned to digital events and campaigns, with Scotland’s rural charity RSABI launching its #KeepTalking campaign ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week in May. Depression is an illness, not a weakness – so please support RSABI if you can and help us all become more resilient.