Think-tank project suggests options for survival
What can livestock
producers do to survive? A
new project should provide
some ideas for hard-pressed
farmers. Emma Penny reports
PRODUCERS may have to consider radical options to improve profitability, according to a new Scottish report.
The report, commissioned by Scottish Enterprise Grampian, was written by SACs rural business unit, and aims to identify and promote options livestock producers can take to boost profitability and secure their future.
Among the suggestions are that suckler beef producers form a specialist co-op for producing cattle, that sheep flocks on hard hills lamb only every two years, and that dairy systems will either be dependent on grass or run on a feedlot system.
These options might seem radical, but Peter Cook, head of SACs rural business unit, believes action has to be taken to change systems and reclaim the UKs competitive advantage. "The current system just isnt working, and is not likely to get much better in the short term, so we need to do something now.
"The ideas came from brainstorming sessions involving all sectors of each industry, and they are options that people should be thinking about seriously."
That is the case on 20 farms in Grampian, where ideas generated will be put into practice in an attempt to boost profits. Each farm is to have a strategic review to start, then a development plan. "We are looking to see what can and cant be done."
He acknowledges that technical improvement will remain important, but adds that he was surprised by some of the proposals put forward when groups included technical experts. This was particularly the case in the group considering suckler beef.
"Despite the technical experts being involved, the group came up with a plan for groups of producers to work together as a survival strategy."
The plan suggested involved groups of eight beef producers co-operating. One would specialise in producing suckler replacements for six suckler herds which would then produce calves, while one producer would act as a large-scale finisher, taking everyones calves to slaughter.
"Group members felt integration was vital. This way they could control breeding, benefit from economies of scale, and become specialists in their areas. They would also benefit by being able to change the breeding strategy according to information generated by the finisher and carcass figures."
But Mr Cook admits there are practical problems with this option at present, the main one being the 90-head limit on BSP claims. "It also requires an enormous change in culture, and a lot of discipline, but people are doing it.
"The group did discuss technical options such as sexed semen, estimated breeding values and management systems, but they wanted a structure to allow continual improvement, specialisation and economies of scale.
"But the group looking at finishing beef systems did concentrate on management, and their key suggestion was that producers should make greater use of measurement and recording – liveweight gain is a key example. Then at least you would be able to judge performance, and would be better able to identify and select good stock," says Mr Cook.
Management also came to the fore in groups discussing the future of both hill and upland sheep flocks.
"The group discussing the future of hill flocks was a bit despondent, and felt many producers would become part-time farmers. They felt tradition and genetics were the sectors two main problems."
Changing breeding management could help, they believe. This would include considering cross-breeding ewes with terminal sires on better hills, weaning earlier so ewes are in better condition and trying to produce easy-care sheep with better parasite resistance and good foraging capacity.
"Producers could set up nucleus flocks using their best ewes for breeding replacements to help improve quality and performance. Like the suckler beef option, breeders could co-operate, with one producer running a nucleus flock on behalf of several others, but again this needs tremendous co-operation."
On hard hill, the group suggested that lambing every two years would help improve ewe condition at tupping and her lambing performance, boost lamb quality and halve labour requirements, allowing producers to earn alternative income.
"They felt the current ratio of one person to 800 ewes was inefficient, and that one person to 1600 ewes would be a better target. This could be done if the flock lambed every two years," says Mr Cook.
Upland flock targets must also change, believed the brainstorming groups. They suggest that one man should aim to produce 1600 lambs to justify his labour costs, but acknowledged that this would mean systems would have to change.
"They believed a move towards a grass-based system, matching lambing to grass growth and perhaps choosing to lamb in May and leaving lambs entire, would help cut costs in lowland and upland flocks.
"Set-aside and cereal stubbles could be used to graze ewes in the autumn, with concentrates fed outside during winter using a snacker feeder. Ewes would not be housed, but would receive concentrate – cheap by-products or grains – over a longer period, reducing forage requirements too."
Running both sheep and cattle would also help improve grass quality, the group suggested. "You could, for instance, run a neighbours cattle on your farm to help improve grass quality, while your sheep graze his land. This also has clean grazing benefits."
• Beef, sheep and dairy sectors.
• Aims to boost profits.
• On-farm assessments too.