Suckler Beef Climate Scheme: final report

Final report from the Suckler Beef Climate Group on development and delivery recommendations for sustainable suckler beef production in Scotland.

15. Data evaluation and business assessment

Because the scheme is an outcome-based support mechanism, the main section of the online business profile should be dedicated to data collection and evaluation as part of any chosen management options. The uploaded data is used to carry out an assessment which focuses primarily on reviewing individual business performance within different areas of suckler beef production in order to identify the farm's current and progressive environmental and physical efficiency, and how this compares to other participants. In order to provide businesses with the tools that allow them to improve their current performance, it is important to

  • Identify individual management options where the business is showing weaker performance; this could indicate that targeted and effective action can be taken to focus on specific areas of the production system in order to resolve the issue(s), e.g. by culling individual cows that are unproductive
  • Identify any patterns where the business is showing poorer performance across several related management options and/or within individual management categories; this may indicate that systemic (management) changes are needed, e.g. by investigating underlying disease issues that are affecting whole herd performance, and outlining a disease control and eradication plan accordingly

The first stage of the annual assessment utilises the submitted data to evaluate the relative business performance within individual management options using either absolute targets or stipulated activities which will be defined in line with the overarching aim of a management option.

Businesses will endeavour to reach the overall aim, or target, of each management option but their starting point and ability to improve their system may vary. In order to capture their initial and subsequent annual performance as they progress through the scheme, the assessment will therefore offer several different 'scenarios', and businesses will be allocated the scenario which best reflects or describes their current performance. The intention of this approach is to recognise that some businesses may not (yet) be able to achieve the "end goal" of the option but are nonetheless taking steps within their production system in an attempt to contribute towards the reduction of greenhouse gases and improved production efficiencies. For instance, the management option aimed at minimising soil disturbance encourages the uptake of zero tillage field management practices and a move away from annual ploughing. Whilst the adoption of zero tillage can achieve the greatest emissions gains and therefore represents the overarching target of this management option, businesses that apply a biannual or multi-annual rotational ploughing system, or carry out minimum/reduced tillage, will be recognised for their lesser-impact but nonetheless important efforts and contribution as well.

Up to five scenarios, or performance levels, will be outlined for each management option and will correspond to an "opportunity score" ranging from 1 to 5. A lower score is allocated to better performance and a higher score to poorer performance to indicate that there is a greater opportunity to achieve significant improvements. Standardisation of the performance results for each management option through their expression as a numerical score from 1 to 5 is recommended as this will simplify the results section and overall business review.

Absolute targets will be used within the above scoring system where these are realistically applicable to any cattle production system without discriminating certain businesses on the basis of system, location, cattle type, environment or market outlet. These may include KPIs such as the calving percentage and calving interval, the herd health status for some of the major cattle diseases, the legume content of in-bye grasslands, or the tillage system to mention just a few.

Where the opportunity for individual businesses to achieve a specific performance level or target is heavily dependent on and variable between different production systems, absolute targets will not be used as these could lead to an unfair disadvantage for some businesses and overcomplicate the delivery and effectiveness of the relevant management options. In such a case it is suggested that participating businesses should instead have to carry out a specific activity rather than meeting an absolute target. This may for instance include the management option aimed at improving individual cow efficiency which requires participants to cull their poorest performing cows, regardless of their current average performance or how they compare to other suckler beef systems.

This approach will help to ensure that realistic and meaningful outcomes can be achieved regardless of the farm type, and means that different participants can apply the same management regardless of their system, their current performance, or the age of their business, and can work towards one common goal. It also ensures that where continuing improvements are possible, e.g. by continuously culling the poorest performing cows, this is encouraged and required as part of the scheme.

Once the participant's performance has been evaluated in line with the specific aims, targets and requirements of the management option(s), the generated results are translated into an opportunity score as mentioned further above.

The following table provides an example, for illustrative purposes only, of how the scoring system would work for management options using absolute targets:

Score 1 calving percentage equal to or greater than 98%
Score 2 calving percentage equal to or greater than 95%
Score 3 calving percentage equal to or greater than 92%
Score 4 calving percentage equal to or greater than 89%
Score 5 calving percentage less than 89%

Using the above fictional scoring system, a business achieving a calving percentage of 94% would achieve a Score 3 which indicates a medium opportunity level to improve performance.

The following example table, again provided for illustrative purposes only, outlines how the scoring system may work where an absolute target is impossible to define, in this case by focusing on achieving a suitable pH level on any fields that receive inputs. As the ideal pH varies from farm to farm on the basis of their particular soil and crop type, defining an absolute pH target value is not feasible, and businesses are instead encouraged to correct soil acidity in line with their individual and specific soil needs:

Score 1 all fields receiving inputs are within recommended pH range
Score 2 all fields receiving inputs are no more than 0.1 units below the recommended pH level
Score 3 all fields receiving inputs are no more than 0.2 units below the recommended pH level
Score 4 all fields receiving inputs are no more than 0.3 units below the recommended pH level
Score 5 some or all fields receiving inputs are more than 0.3 units below the recommended pH level

According to this fictional scoring system, a business that has some fields at the recommended pH level and other fields sitting 0.2 and 0.3 units below the recommended level would receive a Score 4 for this particular management option. This indicates a medium to high opportunity level to improve performance.

The above scoring system will build a picture of business performance across different management options and within different management categories, as illustrated on the following page. This will provide a useful basis and starting point for businesses to easily identify individual management options or categories where they are currently achieving a higher score, i.e. where there is a greater opportunity to improve the current business performance. The opportunity score for each management option will feed into an average business performance score per scheme category by applying a weighting system as explained in the next chapter.

This graphic illustrates how a scoring system could build a picture of business performance across different management options and within different management categories.  Thus providing a useful basis and starting point for businesses to easily identify individual management options or categories where they are currently achieving a higher score, i.e. where there is a greater opportunity to improve the current business performance.

15.1. Weighting and opportunity scoring system

The different categories and their management options form the basis of on-farm activity aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the cattle enterprise. Although each category has been chosen due to its relevance and potential to contribute towards a net reduction in emissions associated with suckler beef production, some offer a greater emissions abatement potential than others. This is either because the activities being targeted are amongst the more significant current sources of emissions, or because the proposed measures are easier to adopt and incorporate into the current cattle production system.

A weighting system should therefore be considered as part of this scheme to emphasise the varying contribution of different areas of production to the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efficiencies, and to allow for prioritisation of certain elements of suckler beef production when calculating the overall business score from the individual opportunity scores obtained within different management options. This will highlight areas where higher impact improvements can be made, and will help businesses focus on those aspects of the cattle enterprise which require attention to deliver immediate benefits and generate quick returns.

In order to reflect these differences, the 5-point scoring system that is used to assess individual business performance should also be used to represent the relative importance of the various management categories. A lower score is allocated to lower priority measures and a higher score is given to measures of greater importance. For example, diseases can have a significant impact on cattle performance, and focusing on herd health can therefore offer a huge potential to reduce emissions associated with underlying health issues. Any performance improvements gained from selective cattle breeding on the other hand can also reduce the emissions intensity, but typically to a lesser degree, at least in the short-term. A higher score would therefore be allocated to the management options associated with cattle health and the health category itself.

The proposed approach would use an overview showing the 6 different management categories as columns and the valuation and business assessment as rows. The categories are weighted for their relative importance towards delivering environmental and economic values, as well as their potential to deliver further benefits. This weighting is carried out by allocating an opportunity score from 1 to 5 as is the case with individual business scoring, with 5 being most and 1 being least significant, important and/or relevant for achieving a certain outcome.

The environmental value of each category forms the core aspect and main aim of the scheme, and includes the potential of each main management category to contribute towards

1) reducing the emissions intensity and/or net GHG emissions of the relevant activities

2) increasing soil carbon sequestration and/or maintaining and protecting existing soil carbon stores

3) protecting and/or enhancing the local biodiversity

4) reducing input wastage

5) reducing the use of chemical inputs including synthetic fertilisers and animal health products to protect local ecosystems from agro-chemicals where possible

Because it is important that environmental benefits can be delivered without negatively impacting on the ability of businesses to be profitable, and because a lot of environmental benefits go hand in hand with economic benefits (e.g. improving efficiencies), it is also essential to consider the potential economic benefits of each management category to individual businesses. The weighted scoring system therefore also assesses the potential of each management category towards

6) improving on-farm production efficiencies and enhancing input and resource utilisation

7) increasing business profitability, either as a result of better input utilisation efficiencies or improved outputs from given inputs and resources

8) enhancing business resilience by addressing current weaknesses within the cattle enterprise, improve efficiencies and profitability, increasing self-sufficiency etc.

There is also a significant potential for the SBCS to offer additional value for taxpayer's money and this has therefore been included within the assessment to consider how the scheme can

9) benefit the wider agricultural industry, for example by encouraging participants to better utilise antibiotics which ultimately may help to delay the development of antibiotic resistance

10) utilise the data uploaded by participants to inform future agricultural policy

11) utilise the data uploaded by participants to feed into relevant scientific research

The above three valuation overviews will form a standard section within the data and business evaluation section. Within each valuation overview, the sub-sections (red referring to the most important ones) have been given a percentage priority to add up to 100% in line with their relative importance within and contribution to the overall valuation outcome. For example, sub-sections 1 and 2 within the environmental valuation overview are the main aims of the scheme and have therefore been prioritised at 40% each, followed by sub-section 3 at 10% due to being a secondary aim of the scheme but nonetheless important to recognise. Sub-sections 4 and 5 are of lesser importance as stand-alone items but tie in closely with the other environmental sub-sections. These have therefore been given a 5% priority each.

The 11 sub-sections within each of the valuation sections will be individually scored within each management category using data from research studies and scientific literature concerning their potential benefits and likely impact level. A score of zero will be allocated where a particular outcome valuation is not relevant, e.g. cattle health does not impact on the extent to which soil carbon storage can be preserved and/or increased.

The priority of each sub-section is then used for a weighted adjustment of the individual scores within each management option, shown as adjusted 'weighted score' on the example overview. Within each of the 3 valuation overviews, these weighted scores are then added up to a total valuation score.

To generate an overall value score for each category, each total valuation score is again weighted for its relative importance against the others using percentage prioritisation to add up to 100%. On the example overview, the environmental value is weighted at 60% due to forming the core aim of the scheme, followed by the economic value at 30% due to its lesser but nonetheless significant importance, and the data and further value section at 10%. This allows to calculate an overall value score for each management category, with a higher value score indicating a category that is of greater importance in achieving significant outcomes.

In addition to highlighting categories with a higher potential to help deliver the aims and objectives of the scheme, it is important to combine these with the annual performance of individual businesses and identify management categories that require attention due to there being (greater) room for improvement both generally as well as specifically to the business.

A fourth section should therefore be considered as part of the analysis to review the business status of individual participants on an annual basis. This is the only section that will differ between individual participants, and includes the following sub-sections:

12) current business performance

13) capital infrastructure/investment needed

14) system applicability/ease of uptake

An example overview to illustrate how the above concept may be presented is provided on the following page.

Scheme Categories
Priority Category 1 Category 2 Category …
  Score (1-5) Weighted score Score (1-5) Weighted score Score (1-5) Weighted score
Environmental value 60% 2.25 1.9 3.4
Reducing emissions intensity and net GHG emissions 40% 5 2 4 1.6 2 0.8
Increasing soil carbon sequestration/maintaining soil carbon storage 40% 0 0 0 0 5 2
Enhancing/promoting local biodiversity 10% 0 0 0 0 4 0.4
Reducing input wastage 5% 3 0.15 4 0.2 1 0.05
Reducing use of chemical inputs (medicines and synthetic fertilisers) 5% 2 0.1 2 0.1 3 0.15
Economic value 30% 4.6 4.6 3.8
Increasing production efficiency and input utilisation 40% 5 2 5 2 4 1.6
Increasing business profitability 40% 5 2 5 2 4 1.6
Enhancing business resilience 20% 3 0.6 3 0.6 3 0.6
Data and further value 10% 3 2.6 2.2
Benefitting wider agricultural industry 40% 3 1.2 2 0.8 1 0.4
Data value for policy purposes 30% 3 0.9 3 0.9 3 0.9
Data value for scientific/research purposes 30% 3 0.9 3 0.9 3 0.9
VALUE SCORE 9.85 9.1 9.4
Business status 2.57 3.15 4.32
Current business performance 90% 2.3 2.07 3 2.7 4.3 3.87
Capital infrastructure/investment needed 5% 5 0.25 4 0.2 4 0.2
System applicability/ease of uptake 5% 5 0.25 5 0.25 5 0.25
OVERALL SCORE 25.3 28.7 40.6

The 3 sub-sections are also weighted, with sub-section 12 for obvious reasons carrying the highest priority. Sub-sections 13 and 14 have a much lower priority but have been included as it is important to consider how relevant different management options are to individual businesses and whether there are any potential financial or other barriers present that may make uptake more challenging. These considerations will help to adjust the scoring of different management categories in line with prioritising areas where the business can make actual and immediate changes over other aspects that are less relevant and therefore more difficult to improve.

It should be noted that the opportunity scoring within each management category is based on importance, i.e. 5 for most important and 1 for least important. For the first 3 valuation overviews, this means that a higher score is allocated where there is a greater potential to deliver on the stated outcome.

Within the fourth section covering the business status, scoring is also carried out in accordance with importance which requires a slightly different approach, i.e. a focus on weaknesses or issues that are currently present:

12) current business performance: higher score awarded for greater potential for (further) improvements, i.e. more important because that particular aspect of the enterprise is currently weaker which may cause higher emissions and therefore requires attention; weaker aspects also have a greater potential for high impact changes and improvements

13) capital infrastructure/investment needed: higher score awarded where lower level of or no investment is needed, i.e. more important because immediate action can be taken with little or no initial investment being needed

14) system applicability/ease of uptake: higher score awarded for higher applicability, i.e. more important to focus on areas where improvements can generate highest impact.

The final step in prioritising different management categories to allow participants to focus on areas of greatest opportunity for improvement involves multiplying the value score from the first three standard sections concerning the various values of the categories with the business status score to generate the overall score for each category. A higher overall opportunity score highlights categories that require a greater focus from individual businesses.

For each management category, the chosen/proposed scoring concept will therefore generate an overall opportunity score that is a function of the relative potential of a management category to achieve significant benefits and the current business performance and scope to achieve higher impact improvements.

15.2. Data presentation via heat-mapping

It is suggested that the SBCS will use the concept of a heat-mapping matrix to compile the results from the data evaluation exercise into an easy to understand overview. This overview will help to clearly highlight areas where there are significant opportunities to improve the cattle production system by adjusting current management or introduce new measures in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, safeguard the environment, and improve cattle performance.

Heat-mapping is a visual business analytical tool that has been successfully used in the business world for many decades to review sales performance, efficiencies and other key processes. It is not related to the concept of physical land and landscape feature mapping and does not necessarily have to include geographical data. Instead, it is used to simplify complex datasets into a visual overview. Heat-mapping collates numerical information and validates this data against relevant business targets to plot business performance. There are different types of this business tool available and a multitude of ways to define a heat-mapping matrix to represent specific data values. The traditional heat-mapping design uses numerical data as baseline to compile an overview that uses different colours, shading or colour intensities to highlight key performances or priorities, often represented by a stronger colour such as red, where as other factors of lesser importance or concern may be highlighted by a lesser intensity or a more neutral colour such as green or blue. This visual representation can make it easier to highlight and detect aspects of the business operations that should be prioritised and require further focus because they have a greater impact on core processes and outcomes, or because they show distinct weaknesses.

An illustrative example of a heat-map is provided below:

This graphic offers a simplified example overview of the potential structure of a future agricultural support system where each sector within agriculture will have its own suite of individual tailored components covering minimum requirements, management options and capital items.

Heat-mapping can for instance be used to capture data about the sale of different products in different areas. Products may be represented along different columns and the areas being reviewed are listed along the rows. The centre of the matrix represents the sales figures for each product in each area, transferred from a separate data overview and expressed as a colour rather than numerical value. The visual representation of that data can make it very easy to detect patterns such as opportunities in areas with high demand for a particular product and can make the business aware of other regions where demand has dropped.

Depending on the chosen approach to data analysis, the information given within the overview can then be grouped by colour, thereby allowing for further analysis to investigate the potential for a common denominator causing better or poorer performance. Using the above example, this could for instance highlight a preference for a certain product brand within a specific area.

Heat-mapping is not a commonly used business analytics tool within the agricultural industry. However, it can be customised to represent datasets of particular relevance to a certain business or operation, and offers an easy and flexible form of communication without the need to include vast amounts of numerical data that can sometimes clutter up presentations and overviews, or distract readers from the key message of the exercise. This is of particular value where readers may struggle with text or numbers, for example as a result of suffering from Dyslexia or Dyscalculia. These distinct advantages in combination with a proven track record within the private business sector make heat-mapping a useful tool to incorporate into the SBCS.

Such a heat-map could include three separate layers to represent business performance per management category on the first layer, per management option on the second layer, and within any options using multiple KPIs on the third layer. Management categories, options and KPIs would be listed against the outcome values of the scheme.

Using the weighted opportunity scoring overview as basis, a draft proposal on how the heat-mapping overview could be designed is shown below.

15.3. Guidance and support

The Suckler Beef Climate Group proposes that the initial and annual review of the business performance and progress should be carried out with guidance from an agri-business adviser with appropriate accreditation and specialist expertise within the area of agri-business farm and carbon efficiencies. The adviser, with input from the farmer, will prepare an in-depth business profile and will help to collate the necessary data needed as part of any chosen management commitments. This will ensure that farmers receive continued support as part of the scheme to assist with data collection, submission and analysis. The adviser will review the results generated during the annual assessment together with the participant, and discuss options available to address weaker aspects of the production system. The discussion will be utilised to agree on specific action points that the business will take forward during the coming year(s) to address priority areas within the cattle production system or overall enterprise management. Such action points may refer to weaker aspects of the current system where there is scope for improvements to be made, and/or the introduction of new on-farm measures or management practices to take advantage of further opportunities available to the business to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support the local ecosystem and the biodiversity within, and/or enhance business efficiencies, profitability and resilience. The opportunity scoring overview will provide a useful baseline for these discussions and the outlining of an agreement on relevant action points.

The adviser should have remote access to the farm business profile and will help to ensure that data input as part of the scheme is standardised. The cost implications arising from these annual on-farm visits should be covered by the scheme, and the meeting should count towards the CPD minimum scheme requirement.

The group also recommends that a workshop, either delivered through farmer meetings or via webinar/online training, should be organised at the beginning of the scheme in order to help participating farming businesses understand the scheme structure and online platform used to facilitate the scheme, the management requirements and their expected outcomes, and the process involved in obtaining and uploading relevant data.

15.4. Rural connectivity and offline application

The online platform used to deliver the SBCS will be a core resource for participating businesses, and regular and timely data submission by participants will rely on good access. It is therefore imperative that good and stable rural connectivity is provided across all parts of Scotland, otherwise there is a risk that farming businesses in the most remote parts of Scotland face unnecessary difficulties associated with scheme compliance and data submission, and are limited in their ability to integrate data monitoring and recording systems via technological and electronic equipment to enhance business efficiencies and environmental gains. This ultimately causes an unfair disadvantage by preventing such businesses from experiencing the same efficiency gains that can be achieved across better-connected parts of Scotland. Many electronic setups including livestock monitoring CCTV, heat and service detection devices, tracking and health monitoring systems and other technology require mobile signal and/or access to internet via cable or wireless setup, and therefore rely on there being good connectivity.

Poor connectivity therefore means that affected farming businesses are potentially unable to make use of such technological advances which may impact on their ability to compete within the wider market place. This in turn could severely compromise their business profitability, resilience and ultimately their long-term viability.

Recognising that the provision of stable and reliable rural connectivity is a longer-term project and cannot realistically be achieved before the introduction of the SBCS, the group recommends that consideration be given to developing a downloadable offline application that can be used by participating businesses and their adviser to capture relevant data. This allows businesses to plan and complete any work associated with scheme compliance within their daily work schedule rather than having to wait for stable internet to be available, avoids data losses as a result of failing to save online progress, and enables the farmer and adviser to carry out their annual meeting, data submission and results evaluation without having to rely on reliable internet. Once the participant or adviser has access to stable internet again, the data captured within the offline application along with the generated results, agreed action points and any further comments and information can be uploaded onto the online application for verification, monitoring and inspection purposes.

15.5. Knowledge hub

Making relevant research literature, scientific studies, industry best practice, trials and case studies readily available is absolutely crucial if Scottish agriculture is to progress and improve its environmental and economic performance in line with new scientific findings and developments, and emerging best practice. It can sometimes be difficult for individual businesses to find the technical and/or relevant information that they are looking for, either due to time constraints limiting their ability to conduct a thorough online search, or because the publications are not easily found unless the individual knows how and where to access it.

As one of the core aspects of this scheme evolves around enabling efficiency gains within individual businesses and across the sector, it is important to provide farming businesses with the ability to efficiently and successfully access the relevant information needed to adopt new management practices and make changes to the existing setup.

It is therefore strongly recommended that the online platform used to deliver the scheme should include a knowledge hub where relevant information such as scientific papers, recent research and case studies relating to climate and environmentally friendly farming and improving on-farm efficiencies is collated and issued for public use. Such a centralised database where farming businesses can easily find relevant articles within topic-specific categories or by means of helpful and user-friendly search parameters will enable businesses to easier access information, thereby maximising the potential benefits of public funding being put towards such studies by ensuring that the results and findings can be accessed and utilised by a wide range of agricultural businesses.

15.6. Scheme concept transferability

The proposed scheme has been structured in such a way that allows for its basic concept to be easily transferred and applied to other (climate) schemes that may be rolled out for alternative agricultural production systems in the near future including dairy, arable and HNV enterprises. Many of its proposed components are relevant to other agricultural sectors, especially with regards to soil health and nutrient management which will be of particular importance and applicable to all sectors of agriculture. Such management options will therefore likely be embedded within other sector specific climate schemes.

The suggested stacked component approach to designing this scheme means that integration with other sector specific schemes will be simple to achieve as Scottish agriculture moves towards a new agricultural policy and support scheme structure. This will be of particular relevance for the practical delivery of such a scheme within mixed farming businesses.

A future scheme concept could therefore be outlined in such a way that businesses will have to fulfil minimum baseline requirements, regardless of their specific farming activity. This may for instance include soil analysis, CPD, carbon auditing, and basic biodiversity enhancement.

Thereafter, businesses can access different enterprise-related management options and potentially any associated capital items, much like is proposed within the SBCS, but they may have to comply with some additional, sector-specific minimum requirements. For the beef sector, such stipulations include sector collaboration between store producers and finishers, or QMS Cattle Assurance certification, whilst livestock businesses in general would be required to carry out feed and forage analysis, and outline a breeding and marketing plan.

A separate section could be dedicated to agri-environmental management which would build on the baseline minimum biodiversity enhancement requirement, and which is discussed in some more detail further below.

A simplified example overview, for illustrative purposes only, of the potential structure of such a future agricultural support system is shown below.



Back to top