The future for Scotland’s iconic beef herd

Last week’s June Agricultural Census figures, produced by Scottish Government, underlined again that our national beef suckler herd is shrinking. 

While this won’t come as a surprise – NFU Scotland’s own Intentions Survey results from January 2023 pointed towards a further reduction in cow numbers – it is clearly a concern given the importance of Scotch beef production to our rural economy.

In this blog, NFU Scotland’s Livestock Policy Advisor Lisa Hislop reflects on the figures, contributing factors and where we go from here to ensure farmers and crofters are enabled to continue delivering high quality red meat, enhance biodiversity and support rural communities. 

So, where are we today?

The total number of cattle in Scotland has dropped by 3 per cent when compared to the 5-year average, but when you dig a little deeper, there was a 12 per cent decline in the total beef breeding herd over the same time frame. 

Industry is consistently encouraged to increase efficiency and productivity as a way of improving business profitability and to reduce emissions. But being more efficient doesn’t necessarily mean you must have less cows. I hope the industry, with the support of policy, will get to the sweet spot of each cow being as efficient as it can be, delivering for the business needs while increasing the output, or even increasing the number of beef cows. In turn, this will bolster the profitability and potential for the industry. We have a vast and diverse beef industry in Scotland which means efficiency will look slightly different on each farm. 

Efficiency does also mean less emissions. The red meat industry has been tasked to reduce our emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 contributing to the wider targets that have been set for Scottish agriculture to reach net zero by 2045. 

However, we cannot talk about efficiency in isolation, the industry continues to emerge out of an incredibly turbulent 18 months, and years of inconsistent returns from the market. The industry is no stranger to squeezed margins, soaring inputs, and low returns. 

Furthermore, uncertainty around future support and the continued misunderstanding of the role of ruminants in delivering public goods and the importance of red meat as part of a balanced diet, has also added pressure to businesses. 

Policy must support our industry to invest in tools and information to become more efficient. It must provide stability for the price taker who doesn’t have a guarantee on their return on the investment. It must recognise and reward the public goods delivered at a private cost.

So, what is the policy context now? 

The Scottish Government has offered support to improve livestock efficiency via the Animal Health and Welfare Interventions package. The offering is up to £2,250 in funding for farmers and crofters to look at their herd or flock health. I hope that this type of support is extended into future support more broadly. 

The Scottish Government also intends to reform the current Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme (SSBSS) to introduce calving interval conditionality from 2025. We have actively been engaged in the stakeholder group which will inform recommendations to the Cabinet Secretary for final decision. It’s clear that the introduction of a calving interval will be ambitious, but we are clear it must be achievable. 

This reform is coming at a significant pace, therefore whatever is delivered must be accessible in the timeframe. Farmers and crofters are already making the management decisions which will impact their future claims. 

A split beef calf payment is essential to ensure a just transition; the stability of a base payment topped up with an extra payment will protect the industry from a cliff edge. All provided that SSBSS continues to be delivered with the same budget, in a recycled manner with an island uplift. 

What’s missing? 

At a Scottish level, the new Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill has a long journey ahead through the Scottish Parliament and the finer detail is yet to come during secondary legislation. This will eventually outline what will replace LFASS, and the opportunity to utilise a mechanism for future iterations of coupled support. We need clarity and communication on the final outcomes of the Calf Scheme reform as previously noted. 

On a UK level, we are still grappling with establishing a consistent and reliable way of measuring, reporting, and verification (MRV) of carbon storage tools and metrics. It is essential that farmers and crofters are recongised and rewarded for their management and delivery of public goods. In doing so we can begin to quantify the benefits delivered by ruminants and build a baseline to move forward with. 

There are also the opportunities and benefits of GWP* as a methane accounting tool which must be taken into consideration moving forward. We would encourage future policy decisions to take all available scientific evidence and research into consideration.

For our iconic beef herd, there are big ticket items which cross both Holyrood and Westminster including Bovine EID, supply chain fairness and requirements moving forward but these are for another blog post. 

As we come to the end of the Committee year, the Livestock and LFA Committees at NFU Scotland remain focused on what is coming for our members in the here and now. But we must also look up, take stock and mitigate any challenges coming down the track while also maximizing any opportunities too. 

Author: Lisa Hislop

Date Published:

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About The Author

Lisa Hislop

Lisa graduated from Edinburgh Napier University with a First Class degree in International Business Management with French, part of her studies included completing a research project to explore Consumer Perceptions of Scotch Beef. Lisa grew up on her family’s hill farm in Langholm, farming 120 suckler cows and 1000 ewes. She joined NFU Scotland in 2022 as a Policy Assistant before becoming Livestock Policy Manager, responsible for policy related to beef, sheep and Less Favoured Areas. Her role includes being the key point of contact for a range of industry and stakeholder groups.

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