How much relevance does the traditional culture of farming have in the modern agricultural sector?
It’s a question that has kept coming back to me ever since someone at a recent panel discussion said something that resonated: “Not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured.”
Take sheep production. There are some progressives reading this who have slashed bought-in feed use, keep a closed flock and study daily liveweight gains, kill sheet data and gross margins until late into the evening.
Others spend much more time concerned with the shape of their rams’ heads and the colour of their ewes’ faces, and devote much time to bloom dipping, face washing and coat plucking.
The second type embodies the traditional culture of the stratified sheep breeding system, but it has become fashionable in some quarters to disparage them and heap praise on the ruthless efficiency of the former.
But is one more of a rational economic actor than the other? To give the traditional farmer credit where it is due, there are plenty of buyers in the marketplace for what they are selling – other farmers like themselves.
Within many breeds there is a critical mass of farmers who are willing to reward each other for producing beautiful sheep that are not related to their beautiful sheep and can therefore be bought and bred to hopefully produce an even more beautiful sheep.
It’s a lovely way to make a living and some of those farmers certainly embody the idea of “if you do what you love, you’ll never work another day in your life”.
Many of these breeds started their existence as an expression of everything it took to cope in some extremely tough, high-altitude environments, even if they have become a great deal softer since – the sheep that is, not the farmers.
More staying power
If there is a problem, it’s that the other type of farmer – more focused on ruthless efficiency – is more likely to have staying power after subsidies go and will have quite different priorities when breeding the flocks of the future.
They start with the goal of delivering an in-spec carcass and work backwards to find out how it can be done for the least spend on vet and med, labour and feed.
This appears to be the exact priorities of the three Cheviot-loving farmers who open the Livestock section this week.
It seems likely that the UK’s post-subsidy sheep flock will be built around a smaller number of breeds as farmers hone in on a smaller number of desirable traits.
If a thick base to a horn stops having a commercial value, where does that leave one hill sheep breed compared with another with the same hardiness – if the horned breed needs more management?
If the number of sheep each shepherd has to manage increases further, where does that leave wedge-shaped breeds that often need a bit more help at lambing time?
You only have to look at the lower diversity of breeds in New Zealand and the US to see it could happen.
Better flock health, more output per hectare – all these things are to be celebrated.
But if we look back in a decade or two and notice that the pure cosmetic joy of producing an animal that conforms precisely to breed traits has been swept away in the pursuit of progress, I hope we acknowledge that something has been lost as well as gained.