Beef output in Scotland stands on the threshold of a major advance with the industry being driven forward by a newly devised production efficiency scheme called Beef 2020, backed by £45 million of Scottish government money and designed to secure a membership base involving 70 per cent of the country’s beef herds.
An ambitious project, to which all of Scotland’s production, processing and marketing bodies have contributed, Beef 2020 is aimed at reversing a worrying decline in Scottish beef production which has seen beef cow numbers fall by 50,000 head since 2005, resulting in a 15 per cent decline in finished beef output over the same period.
With high-quality Scottish beef commanding a global trade, whenever supplies allow, and with new EU trade agreements with Canada and the U.S. promising fresh export opportunities in the future, the industry focus in Scotland is firmly set on expansion.
In a bid to establish the strongest possible technical program for growth, the Scottish government launched its Beef 2020 initiative at the end of 2013, appointing a 15-member team of government and industry representatives to develop an achievable set of growth targets and procedures.
Led by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) chairman, Jim McLaren, at the request of Scotland’s farm minister, Richard Lochhead, the review team took the best part of a year to consider the industry’s options, finally publishing their conclusions in August 2014. This included proposals for a 23-point action plan aimed at revitalizing Scotland’s beef sector.
“Our beef industry is characterized by opportunity,” said McLaren, speaking after his report was released. “I am under no doubt that a strong home market coupled with the growing global demand for red meat and premium products points to future success.”
The 23-point plan is all about equipping the country’s farmers to improve the efficiency, sustainability and quality of their beef herds, with implementation due to be secured ahead of next year’s calving season.
Plan highlights include the setting up of a national livestock database with support being given to farmers to help them identify necessary on-farm actions. This will almost certainly involve measures to improve cow fertility, reduce disease, optimize nutrition through feed analysis, and maximize grass and soil management.
The plan, endorsed by Minister Lochhead in March this year, following six months’ careful consideration, now carries the financial backing of the Scottish government with £40m earmarked to enable beef farmers to collect genetic and herd management information to “better inform future breeding decisions.’’ Much of the remaining £5m of promised funding will be spent on expanding the Scottish Electronic Identification database system, with links being established between farmers and other cattle data sources, such as auction markets and abattoirs.
The vision of Beef 2020 is to secure a market-led growth in production and sales of Scottish beef, increasing annual output from the 166,000 tonnes which existed when the talking began in 2013 to 185,000 tonnes by 2020. Achieving this target will be partly based on improving on-farm productivity while also securing a growth in beef cow numbers of five per cent within five years, with the “over-time” goal of raising beef cow numbers by 10 per cent in total by 2025.
“We’re certainly at the stage where we need to look at our technical efficiency,” commented Scottish Beef Association chairman, Scott Henderson, reflecting on the reduced support now being given to the European beef sector, following the latest review of the European Commission’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
“That will mean seeking to improve the industry’s output without necessarily making any increase to inputs. At a practical level, producers in Scotland need to tighten their calving patterns, improve conception rates and reduce calf mortality figures, through improved health and management.
“The kneejerk reaction to the latest cut in CAP support would be for some producers to fall out at the bottom end of the industry. While we may well see a further fall-off in producer numbers, the challenge for those who stay is to improve technical efficiency, joining those who are already producing beef profitably.”
Henderson, a member of the original Beef 2020 review team, is also part of the industry/government implementation group, tasked with converting the 23-point plan into something that ensures this initiative delivers in a way that so many good ideas and initiatives of the past simply haven’t. The big difference this time is that the Scottish government has bought into the industry’s revival program and is backing the venture with hard cash.
The often-quoted example is that the nation’s Scotland Food & Drink organization has boosted exports massively in recent years, now being close to hitting its next industry value target of £16.5 billion, to be achieved by 2017. Although much of that success is based on the rising global sale of whisky, the message to all other Scottish producers, including beef farmers, is that they can also be much more successful in the future, if they get their production and marketing systems right. That’s what Beef 2020 is driving to achieve.
As for what this might mean in terms of future Scottish beef sales into Canada, the view from QMS head of marketing, Laurent Vernet, is that the Canadian market certainly “could be of interest” going forward.
He identified the placing of prime cuts of Scottish beef into Canada’s food service and deli-retail as a key target, supported by a focus on offering beef that is grass fed, artificial hormone free and subject to high animal welfare standards. He also sees Canadian market opportunities for Scottish ground VL beef.
“However,” he added, “if and when we offer beef to the Canadian market we will not be physically able to ‘flog the market’ in a way which would influence prices. In fact, we will be looking much more at playing the ‘romantic card’ based on our Scottish origins.”
Henderson also added a note of 2015 caution, commenting that Beef 2020 was always going to be a long-game process.
“We’re already thinking of this as a three-year program,” he said. “What we do in year one won’t impact on the market until two or three years later, when finished stock start coming through. It’s not a quick fix, certainly, but definitely no less valuable for that. After all, we’ve finally started to turn Scottish beef production around, with every intention of delivering an extremely strong final result.”