'The $64,000 question is how many farms, particularly smaller dairy and many beef farms, particularly in the west and north, where slurry not straw systems prevail, will be able to find the necessary investment to carry on rearing cattle beyond 2026, even if they want to?'

Finally, the monsoon of 2023 has relented and we have the welcome prospect of a couple of weeks of cold, dry, frosty weather. I’ve seldom experienced fields quite so wet at this time of year – and we are the lucky ones.

I travelled through Yorkshire and North Wales in mid/late December and I have never seen the likes. Maize crops abandoned in Wales and winter wheat and oilseed rape looking absolutely hellish in many parts of Yorkshire, right down to the Humber and probably beyond.

That situation has been repeated right up the east coast of Scotland from all accounts, and speaking to friends in Fife and Aberdeenshire it is almost unheard of that they appear to be wetter than Dumfriesshire.

I recently attended an old family friend’s funeral in soggy Ayrshire and heard a conversation between two local farmers about slurry management. Three months into the winter their storage was already full. In the old days, we always seemed to get a break in the weather to deal with slurry and dung.

But, even with the benefit of improved tyre technology and umbilical spreading, such windows seem to get fewer and further between as every year passes. And of course, looming on the horizon in two years’ time is having to deal with new slurry storage regulations, which will require 22 weeks’ storage to comply, with 26 weeks no doubt coming in the not too distant future.

Over the years we have invested heavily both in the storage and handling of slurry, but as many of The Scottish Farmer readers who have done the same will know, ‘it ain’t cheap’! If a business can stand this significant capital investment, the reduction in the reliance on bought-in fertiliser by being able to use slurry more timeously, efficiently and therefore effectively, brings meaningful reductions in variable costs of keeping livestock.

But the $64,000 question is how many farms, particularly smaller dairy and many beef farms, particularly in the west and north, where slurry not straw systems prevail, will be able to find the necessary investment to carry on rearing cattle beyond 2026, even if they want to?

My view of the transition period from the present farm support regime to whatever comes next was that before the stick we needed a period of carrot!! Thankfully, I am not alone in this, as was made abundantly clear in the headline of the excellent recent opinion piece by Gavin Hill, which read “Confidence needed in the beef herd”.

The five years post-COVID to 2026 that we had to offer leadership, guidance and a framework for what the future of the beef sector would look like in a new post CAP/Brexit world has all but vanished. But instead of offering proper ‘carrots’ to beef producers, and other sectors, to start making the change to the “new world”, (love it or hate it), we have been offered virtually nothing.

A thousand quid a year for soil sampling, animal health and welfare plans and some data recording doesn’t constitute a carrot in my eyes. More like a button mushroom grown in the dark alongside policy development!

So, not only have we failed to use three years of this five year window of opportunity, we have watched the funding that may have kick-started this transition process being hijacked by Scot Gov with little more than a belated whimper. And despite all the table thumping and recent rhetoric, that money is gone for good – period.

If it reappears, or, more accurately, someone claims it is about to reappear, you can be sure it will arise like smoke from behind a mirror from another existing pot which will then in turn mysteriously vanish. Over the holidays I watched a recording of Mairi Gougeon and George Burgess, her Director of Agriculture and Rural Economy, giving evidence to Finlay Carson’s Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee.

Despite repeated and straightforward questions about the stolen Scottish agriculture funding over the last two years, (actually three), neither of them could offer any kind of reply or insight into where the hell our money has gone, and more importantly, when, if or how it will ever return. If it wasn’t so serious, which it is, it would be comical. The whole session would not have been out of place as an episode of the brilliant “Yes Minister” of old. Mr Burgess for all the world could have been Sir Humphry and Ms Gougeon was an absolute ringer for the hapless Jim Hacker.

So with no chance of enough funding to offer carrots to anyone in the run up to 2026, and no chance of any leadership or sensible, practical on-farm initiatives that will really make a noticeable difference, what are we left with? Well, of course, the answer to that is straightforward even if Messrs Gougeon, Burgess et al won’t spell it out – we are left with the stick and a bloody big, expensive one at that.

Slurry storage will be the tip of the regulatory iceberg, believe me. And the Cross Compliance conditions that will be required, even to access the first tier of funding that NFUS keep bleating on about, will make your eyes water, just watch this space!

I always envisaged Nutrient Management Plans, Biodiversity Audits and Plans, Animal Health and Welfare Plans and a raft of other requirements being part of our post-2026 future. But that was on the premise that there was additional funding for them and each farm business had clear, well-defined outcomes agreed from the information collected from these audits and plans which meant they would be financially rewarded for reaching them.

In no way, shape or form will that be belatedly proposed now, not a chance. We are heading for a cliff edge beaten by sticks and unless we sign up for this or, more importantly, can afford to comply with this, then sorry folks, it’s over the cliff edge you go. If you don’t believe me, just look across the border to England (and Wales) where many are already lying on the rocks below or clinging by a thread. And look no further than suckler cow numbers in England for additional evidence of this.

Just as the guys I was talking to in Ayrshire were scratching their heads wondering how they would ever be able to square the circle of complying with slurry storage rules, Gavin’s plea for “confidence in the beef sector” will go completely unnoticed in the corridors of Yes Minister land. Why – because although the new year is traditionally a time of “out with the old, in with the new”, unfortunately, we are stuck with the same old, same old prejudices, disinterest and ambivalence that this SNP/Green administration has had for Scottish farmers and food producers since the day it was cobbled together.

And to rub salt into these wounds, Humza Yousaf is reported this week trying to re-engage with the increasingly sceptical business sector and arguing why independence would be positive for the Scottish economy. As well as the usual suspects, including renewables and carbon capture, he also cited the food and drink sector as part of the foundations of a future independent, thriving Scottish economy.

You really couldn’t make this drivel up. We have no agriculture policy linked to food production. We have sheep making way for trees. We have rewilding and all manner of environmental schemes proposed to reduce production. We have a clear intention to continue reducing suckler cow numbers.

We have arable land being flooded regularly as we have no river management plans any more. We have over-regulation and support being withdrawn for capital investment programmes across every sector of Scottish agriculture and even the much-vaunted Food Processing and Marketing Grant Scheme was scrapped a year ago.

So, against this background, how the hell can the FM claim that the food and drink sector will be an important pillar of Scotland’s economy in the future with or without independence?

His government is doing all it can to decimate the livelihoods of primary producers and has been since the Green tail started wagging the SNP dog. Without primary production, you don’t need food processors and you don’t have a food industry in Scotland without processors, so to pretend otherwise is disingenuous spin and, quite frankly, bullshit.

But then, we are getting used to that and it’s getting us nowhere.