Driving efficiency in Scottish beef and sheep

Yesterday (5th July) I attended an event  that was put on by the Farming For a Better Climate project that is running here in Scotland (there will be another blog post on that later this week).  The event was titled “Driving efficiencies in Suckler Cows and Breeding Ewes” and aimed to “help farmers in difficult economic times focus on improving output by concentrating on critical efficiency factors.”

cattle_talkIt didn’t disappoint.

The event was extremely well attended with around 120 farmers turning up to see what was happening.  Speaking to a few, I was surprised to find that some had travelled 100 miles to attend.

The morning was split up into 4 different stations to go round, each looking at a different topical subject.  The stations were looking at Calf nutrition and the benefits of creep feeding, and the use of trace element supplements, Post weaning management of sheep and cattle, cattle and sheep health and disease management (which focused on post weaning pneumonia in cattle and parasite control in sheep) and then soil and grassland management.

sheep_condition_scoreAll stations were great, and what struck me going round each of them was the attention to detail that each one had as well as costed out examples of the different management options that were being discussed.  I particularly liked the hands on resources that were present to condition score sheep.

A couple of things that stood out on the way round were:

The impact that the changing weather was having on-farm.  This was particularly evident in the sheep parasite session, where Haemonchus, Nematodirus and liver fluke were now being seen due to the milder wetter weather weather.

In the soils and grassland session, there were interesting discussions about grassland utilisation. The fact that stuck in my mind from this session came from John Vipond, a sheep specialist who explained that “if when you pick a handful of grass from the field and 1 blade in every 8 is dead, you will half your lamb growth rate.”
Growing grass in Scotland does include peaks and troughs, and decisions are needed on how you are going to manage these peaks. John concluded, that in times of dwindling financial support, putting what investment you have into infrastructure on faro that allows you to rotationally graze your fields is a good option. This means that you can get the farm set up so that it can work with less people and maximise the resources that you have got, and allow you to utilise the grass more effectively.
Its all about working away at the little things that you can influence and change.

After lunch we moved into a panel session with a mix of farmers and the managing director of the local livestock market to discuss what they were doing in their businesses to improve efficiency.

They were all excellent speakers.

Joyce Campbell’s talk was one of the highlights of the day for me.  She won the coveted title of Scottish Sheep farmer of the Year this year and has embraced social media to bring her life on the hills with her sheep to her consumers in the supermarkets.  From putting Go-Pro’s on sheep dogs, to capturing the absolutely stunning scenery and wildlife where she farms, to sending up drones to capture video (one of which went viral and got over 4 million hits), she is an inspiration and embodies the vision of making the direct link between the consumers of her beef and lamb with where it is produced.  She explained that it was all to do with understanding the power of what you have in your pocket.

She has gained commercial advantages from using social media as well, she is able to sell her tups to a much wider geographical area, and has people coming to visit the farm from Wales, Ireland and further afield.  She is also passionate about encouraging young entrants into agriculture, and takes on volunteers, apprentices and helpers to pass her knowledge onto the next generation and ensure a thriving industry.

She finished her speech with a challenge to all present, to “get your mobile phones out and promote our industry!”

ffbc_eventJohn Gordon, a beef and sheep farmer from Huntly also presented some great facts about what he was doing and how it was so vital to know your business and do what’s right for you. He did come out with the quote of the day for me, which was:


“Never let your farm know that you are hard up”

As well as the slightly longer quote below.

Never mind oil, gas and petrol – food is the greatest energy source in the world.  Without food where would we be? There will always be someone predicting doom and gloom in agriculture, but we are a resilient industry, it doesn’t matter how bad things are, you get up and carry on.”

The event was great, and the feedback from the farmers that I spoke to was overwhelmingly positive.  What was great about this event was that it was completely production focused.  Although it was funded through the Farming for a Better Climate initiative, it wasn’t focused on carbon, greenhouse gas emissions or resource use, it was embedding it into day to day business.  I realised that I hadn’t listened to talks about health for a while, as normally its not a subject that we cover, but we should be! Linking it back to production and really doing carbon by stealth, seems to be working, and if we are getting the results in terms of improved efficiencies etc (and still branding it as climate work) then why not?

The take home message for the farmers was around looking at what we can change.

There are lots of things, especially in these turbulent times, that are out of our control.  Efficiency is in our control and we can use all the tools in the box (including analysis, advice, data and management) to make our systems as efficient and resilient as possible to ride out the bumpy times yet to come.