The most modern experimental beef facility in Britain has been opened near Edinburgh with the twin key aims of finding ways of maximising production and minimising the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Most of the £1.26m cost of the vast 100m x 30m building at the SAC‘s research farm at Wester Howgate was met by the Scottish vovernment.

Scotland’s rural affairs minister, Richard Lochhead told a gathering of about 300 beef producers that the facility was essential to help them become smarter, more efficient and more competitive in a rapidly changing world.

He also gave the strongest indication yet that the Scottish government intended to change agricultural support to a production-based mechanism. In Scotland beef production accounts for 24% of all agricultural output.

“We’re not necessarily talking about headage payments, but agricultural policy has to adapt to the fact that food security is now very high on the agenda,” he said.

“We have considerable flexibility within the CAP, so any constraints are largely financial. But any substantial change in support regimes will lead to winners and losers, and no one is volunteering to be the group which will sacrifice their current support.”

One of the key experiments in the building, which can house 300 suckler cows or 500 finishing cattle, is investigating how livestock genetics, reducing waste and improved animal welfare might be cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and helping the UK meet Kyoto targets.

Kev Bevan, head of SAC’s Rural Business Unit, says adopting these ideas would be a “win-win” solution for livestock farmers.

He added: “Farmers should care because not only will farms have a better carbon footprint, they’ll also make more money. Already retailers like Arla are asking producers to carry out environmental audits. Ultimately, farmers will have no choice.”

SAC chief executive Bill McKelvey acknowledged that before greater focus on climate change, it had been “difficult” to attract government funding for practical agriculture.

“The extremists say we should stop producing beef because of methane emissions. But we argue that the challenge is to produce meat efficiently, reducing the overall carbon footprint by raising the output of beef per tonne of CO2 as high as possible. To achieve that we need the most up-to-date knowledge and understanding.”

Other research projects being carried out in the building include the latest live video techniques for assessing quality of meat, improving suckler herd productivity through health management and the latest cattle-handling facilities.