Scottish beef industry representatives have written jointly to Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy Fergus Ewing raising their concerns about the prospects for the Scottish suckler beef herd.

Considering the reduction in cattle numbers over the last decade and more, NFU Scotland, the Scottish Beef Association (SBA) and the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) met in Stirling last week to discuss the issue.

Scotch beef trends

The number of finished cattle passing through Scottish abattoirs has declined from more than 520,000 cattle in 2005 to under 400,000 in 2017, as part of what has been a long-term trend.

The provisional results of the December 2017 Scottish agricultural census showed beef cow numbers at 415,500 – down almost 1% on June 2017 figures and 5% lower than the 10-year average of 435,300.

The major factor in this reduction has been the challenge of profitability impacting the on-going viability of beef production.

Speaking after the meeting, NFU Scotland Livestock Committee chairman Charlie Adam, a beef producer from Aberdeenshire, said: “All three organisations welcome that the Scottish Government has now produced its post-Brexit proposals in the form of the ‘Stability and Simplicity’ consultation.

"Importantly, that allows for a rural funding transition period and we will submit our full responses in due course.

“However, greater returns from the marketplace for beef in the future will be limited due to the fierce competitiveness of the food retail market.

A premium product

"Our reputation for quality and our PGI (protected geographical indication) status will play a vital role in leveraging the necessary premium for Scotch Beef over our competitors, but despite that premium being in place for many years, the beef sector has still seen a substantial decline in numbers.

With limited market returns, it is vital that any future support for the sector is developed in a way which enhances production levels of iconic Scotch beef.

“The existing Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme (SSBSS) has been a positive driver of on-farm productivity, encouraging some farmers to invest in the production of profitable stock.

"However, it has at best only slowed down the decline in stock numbers rather than achieve its policy aims to stabilise beef cow numbers and then return the size of the national herd back to historical levels."

SBA president, Neil McCorkindale said the Beef Efficiency Scheme had been perceived as "overly-burdensome" by many producers.

"We, therefore, hope that the Scottish Government can commit to simplicity when developing similar future support mechanisms to make them more user-friendly, attractive and, most importantly, enabling all livestock farmers to achieve productivity benefits," he said.

SAMW president Frank Clark added: “It is obvious from discussion with farming bodies that production-driven support is needed in the immediate future to arrest the decline in cattle numbers, hopefully reversing the present downward trend into growth.

“While our members are currently investing in their plants and have additional future investments in mind to ensure processing facilities in Scotland remain of the highest standard, we need an increase in raw material supplies going forward. Otherwise, we will not be able to capitalise as an industry on future sales opportunities.”