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.

6. Minimum scheme requirements

The SBCS aims to deliver a wide range of climatic and environmental benefits by encouraging on-farm best practice and the adoption of efficient suckler beef production measures. In addition to the various management options that will be available for applicants to choose from, the scheme has identified several key criteria that should be carried out by all participating businesses to ensure a common starting point and basis throughout the scheme.

Scottish agricultural businesses already have to comply with a multitude of legal stipulations concerning environmental protection and animal welfare, as well as animal, plant and public health, and are subjected to cross compliance inspections to ensure that their farming practices fall within the remit of official rules and regulations as outlined by Scottish and European legislation. There are two main aspects to cross compliance which include the Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs)[19] and the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAECs)[20] as set out by the government's rural payments and services division.

The Statutory Management Requirements are broadly aimed at protecting the environment, farm animal and public health, and include measures that have to be taken by farmers to

  • protect watercourses and reduce the risk of water pollution in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones
  • protect special areas of conservation and important habitats of wild birds
  • correctly identify and register livestock to ensure full traceability
  • follow rules and guidance relating to livestock health and disease management to reduce the risk of diseases spreading to other livestock or humans
  • minimise the risk of issues resulting from incorrect use or handling of livestock feed, livestock related substances, and plant protection products
  • protect and maintain the welfare of livestock

The requirements on Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions focus on the protection of watercourses, habitats, soils and landscape features located on agricultural land, and include measures concerning

  • the protection of groundwater against pollution, including guidance on buffer strips along watercourses
  • the protection of water resources, especially with regards to the abstraction of water for irrigation
  • the protection of soil against erosion by maintaining a minimum soil cover and carrying out site specific management to limit erosion
  • the maintenance of soil organic matter levels
  • the protection and retention of landscape features

In addition to the above rules and regulations that are already embedded within legislation and compulsory for Scottish farming businesses to comply with, the scheme also proposes the following additional commitments as part of the scheme. These criteria have been deemed relevant and can deliver distinct benefits to businesses, and as such may already be adopted and applied in full or in parts by a large number of prospective participants. They have been chosen for their importance, and due consideration has been given to ensuring that they are achievable by any suckler beef enterprise without causing barriers to entry and participation on the basis of certain business types and structures, or tenure constraints.

6.1. QMS Cattle Assurance

Requirement: For applicants to be accredited members of the QMS Cattle (& Sheep) Assurance Scheme[21] at the beginning of and throughout the SBCS contract duration. As part of this assurance scheme, participants are required to adhere to predefined standards of production and need to ensure that they comply with the assurance requirements at all times.

Relevance: Consumers are increasingly aware and concerned about the well-being of farmed animals and the environment, as well as the potential negative impact that can arise from poor farming practices. Businesses which are accredited under the QMS Cattle & Sheep Assurance Scheme have to adhere to and comply with a range of production standards concerning on-farm management and practices. This includes the rearing and production of beef within Scotland and to high legislative standards for animal health and welfare and environmental protection; best practice for any veterinary health treatments such as the use of antibiotics; detailed record-keeping of animal events, treatments and movements for full traceability; feed, health and contingency plans; and appropriate certification requirements amongst others.

Aim: Ensuring that businesses hold such an accreditation and adhere to the relevant standards gives consumers the reassurance that the beef originating from these accredited farms is Scottish, has been produced in line with full production and animal movement traceability and transparency, and with due consideration to safeguarding high animal health and welfare standards and environmental protection. Further reassurance that accredited businesses are compliant is given to consumers through an auditing regime taking place on an annual basis as part of the accreditation scheme to ensure that the assurance requirements are being met.

6.2. Continuing personal development

Requirement: For applicants to carry out continuing personal development on an annual basis as part of the SBCS. This may include a range of off-farm activities as well as an annual farm visit by an accredited adviser.

Relevance: Business development and the improvement of on-farm performance and efficiencies can be greatly stifled where the business struggles to obtain new knowledge about recent research findings, best practice or technological advancements.

Aim: Regular exchange and networking with a range of individuals including fellow farmers, industry professionals, academics and other experts and stakeholders can help to obtain knowledge about new on-farm practices and technological improvements, opportunities to optimise farm business management, encourage individuals to critically review and discuss current farm system operations at home, and lead to an increased uptake of new equipment or farming methods to improve farm performance efficiencies. This particular minimum requirement and the SBCS as a whole will offer significant opportunities for peer support and exchange amongst Scotland's suckler beef farmers. Learning from the best and from each other, and creating local support networks to this end is key to allow farmers to embrace changes to their business and within the agricultural industry with confidence. An open mindset and a willingness to adapt and change can ultimately help to improve on-farm efficiencies, boost on-farm profitability, and reduce production-related greenhouse gas emissions. Encouraging social interaction through face-to-face meetings, social interaction and workshops also delivers crucially important benefits for the mental health and well-being of individuals, especially for farmers who typically work on their own.

6.3. Carbon auditing

Requirement: For applicants to complete an annual farm carbon audit as part of and throughout the SBCS and define clear action points on the basis of the generated results to address any areas of particular weakness within their cattle production system.

Relevance: Inefficiencies within a production system not only impact on the farm's overall performance, profitability and resilience, but can lead to an increased emissions intensity associated with the enterprise as a result of poorer resource and input utilisation. Whilst cross-farm or cross-enterprise type comparisons can be difficult to capture on a like-for-like basis via carbon audits due to the uniqueness of different farming system, carbon auditing can be a very useful tool for individual businesses to compare their annually updated results to previous carbon audits, which can help to detect where progress is being made or highlight patterns within their specific system that may be impacting on their efficiencies.

Aim: An annual review of the farm's approximate level of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output can provide a useful business-specific baseline from where to identify any inefficiencies within the production system that are causing unnecessarily high emissions per unit of output. Carbon auditing including a comparison of current performance against previous results from the same farm can therefore enable individual businesses to focus on areas of weaknesses within their farming operations and take steps to reduce their emissions intensity whilst improving general on-farm effectiveness for improved cattle performance and profitability.

6.4. Biodiversity enhancement

Requirement: For applicants to identify any key on-farm or local habitats requiring specific and targeted management in order to protect a vulnerable plant or animal species or community in line with the biodiversity aims forming part of the SBCS.

Relevance: The SBCS is primarily targeting the reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions from Scottish suckler beef cattle herds but also aims to deliver further environmental benefits to help the ecosystem and local biodiversity. Many important and native plant and animal species are struggling with an ever-changing climate, land use and farming changes, habitat deterioration, and other challenges.

Aim: Regardless of how large or small a farming business is, there is always a potential to target sward, grazing or general land management in such a way that it can deliver significant benefits for local (vulnerable) key species with minimal impact on farming operations. Identifying what (vulnerable) key species are present within the local area, and taking steps to support the creation, enhancement or preservation of suitable habitats to support such species could make a significant difference through individual on-farm commitments to species and habitat management. A small contribution per farm, spread across large areas of Scotland, can create a mosaic patchwork, thereby delivering potentially significant collective benefits, particularly for any migratory key species and colonies relying on geographical spread.

6.5. Soil analysis

Requirement: For applicants to carry out regular soil analysis on a rotational basis on all fields that receive lime, organic manure and/or synthetic fertiliser, and complete a nutrient management plan on the basis of that information throughout the duration of the SBCS. This includes basic soil testing to identify the current levels of pH, Phosphate (P), Potash (K) and Magnesium (Mg) for the purpose of better nutrient management, as well as a soil carbon analysis to identify the level of carbon currently stored on improved farmland.

Relevance: Soil is possibly the most important resource on any farm, and maintaining a healthy soil is key to ensuring good sward/crop performance which in turn determines how well livestock will perform. Outlining an effective grassland/crop and nutrient management plan can be very difficult to achieve without knowing the current nutritional status of the soil. Where inputs are inadequate or excessive, this can lead to wasteful or inefficient usage of inputs and potential associated environmental concerns, a deteriorating soil health, and poorer crop and livestock performance. Poorer livestock performance ultimately increases the emissions intensity and where soil health is being compromised, this can limit or reduce the soil's ability to maintain existing or accumulate additional carbon stocks for long-term storage.

Aim: A greater understanding of the pH and nutrient status of the soil enables businesses to better target any field management and associated inputs in order to ensure that soil health is maintained and optimum production performance obtained. This will help to improve on-farm soil management efficiencies, lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output through a better utilisation of inputs, and increase the potential for effective soil carbon storage. Soil carbon analysis will help to establish a better understanding of the extent to which different types of farmland soils are already storing carbon, which will allow for a better understanding to be gained of the likely impact of different farmland management on actual soil carbon stores and any further sequestration potential across Scotland's farmland.

6.6. Forage analysis

Requirement: For applicants to carry out annual sampling of all silage, haylage or hay used on-farm, including home-grown and/or purchased forages, as part of and throughout the SBCS, and outline a cattle feed rationing plan on the basis of the results. This includes individual sampling per cut and should be carried out separately for clamp and baled silage. Individual sampling should be carried out for forages purchased from different suppliers or in different batches.

Relevance: Planning an efficient and effective feed ration that meets the nutritional requirements of different animals at specific stages of production is impossible to achieve without knowing the nutritional value and quality of the feeds provided. This can lead to productivity and performance limitations where the diet cannot meet demands, or input wastage and potential calving issues where an oversupply is taking place. Such inefficient use of inputs can increase the emissions intensity of a given production system and ultimately impacts on business resilience and profitability.

Aim: A greater understanding of the nutritional value within on-farm feeds enables the business to adjust cattle rations accordingly in order to ensure that production demands of different animals or management groups are met by adequate and properly targeted dietary quantities, thereby improving on-farm feeding efficiencies and achieving better performance whilst avoiding waste. Analysing home-grown forages can also help to identify where changes to grassland management and forage production may be required to address any shortfalls, thereby improving the production of local and home-grown feed. This can help to reduce the need to purchase cattle feed from further afield or abroad and lower emissions associated with the transportation of any bought-in feed.

6.7. Manure analysis

Requirement: For applicants to carry out regular sampling of any organic manures applied to their fields, and outline their nutrient management plan and farm waste management plan accordingly. This includes both slurry and farmyard manure.

Relevance: Outlining an effective nutrient management plan that includes the use of organic fertilisers such as slurry can be very difficult without knowing the exact nutrient availability of the manure. This can lead to poor manure utilisation through wastage or a limited crop response, and result in potential environmental diffuse pollution concerns and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Aim: A greater understanding of the nutritional value within organic manures enables businesses to adjust nutrient inputs to various fields accordingly in order to ensure that plant nutrient requirements are met by adequate and properly targeted nutrient input levels. This leads to better on-farm nutrient utilisation which helps to boost plant performance whilst avoiding waste, thereby minimising concerns over environmental implications through improved farm waste management. Better targeting of organic manures such as slurry or farmyard manure as a result of a known nutrient content can furthermore reduce the reliance on purchased synthetic fertiliser and ultimately lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from nutrient management.

6.8. Sector collaboration through data sharing

Requirement: For store producers to make any relevant performance and most recent treatment data of store cattle intended for sale available via central database, and for finishers to share the relevant weight performance and carcass classification for any processed fat cattle via the same database.

Relevance: Achieving an efficient system where the suckler herd produces stores of sufficient performance quality for finishing can be difficult when these stores are sold on without any information being fed back to the store producer with regards to their finishing performance. Likewise, it can be challenging for finishing systems to forecast the likely performance of different store animals when there is no baseline information available from the store producer. Not knowing what recent treatment recently purchased store cattle have received can cause further issues associated with double treatments within a short timeframe, or the performance being compromised as a result of the animal not being treated in a timely manner.

Aim: Closing the feedback loop between store producers and finishers to exchange relevant weight and performance data can therefore offer distinct opportunities for both parties by highlighting animals with superior or inferior performance, thereby allowing for better breeding and input management. In addition, providing information regarding recent veterinary treatments enables better health management to support good animal performance and minimise wasteful use of animal health products.

6.9. Breeding and marketing plan

Requirement: For applicants to complete a breeding and marketing plan at the start of the SBCS, and carry out an annual review throughout the scheme duration to update the plan where necessary.

Relevance: An effective farm business strategy should be closely aligned with a sound awareness of the production potential of the farm and on-farm resources such as the labour availability, existing or potential market demand, and how these two factors can be combined to match the most suitable production system to a relevant and realistic target market. More specifically for suckler beef enterprises, this includes choosing a suitable breeding, grazing and wintering system that can efficiently and effectively utilise given on-farm or locally available resources, and a focus on market outlets that are best suited to the chosen production system. In theory, a production and marketing strategy should be outlined at the onset of business activity and regularly reviewed to adjust to a changing economic and political climate.

The farming industry can be different in the way it approaches strategic business planning due to a variety of reasons including, amongst other factors,

  • agricultural support mechanisms influencing economic decisions, or helping to off-set or hide the losses from inefficient farm enterprises;
  • a traditional mindset focusing on the continuation of enterprises that have previously taking place on the farm for many generations;
  • and sometimes because of an assumption that there is always a ready market for agricultural produce.

With an uncertain future of support payment mechanisms and budgets, climate change affecting growing conditions, parasitic cycles and whole production systems, different trends influencing consumer behaviour, and the ever-changing economic and political environment, there is an increasing need for farms to be actively managed as agri-businesses. This requires farmers to be aware of and able to respond to any external factors potentially impacting on their production outputs and business performance. A business without a sound strategy is less resilient and therefore more vulnerable to suffer any market, political or environmental shocks, especially when relying on support payments to make up any financial shortfalls as a result of inefficient on-farm production systems.

Aim: Outlining a breeding and marketing plan requires farmers to take a step back and critically assess their business, thereby giving them a chance to review the suitability of their breeding and/or finishing system and whether it matches the resources available to the farm, and actively consider different market outlets and how these tie in with their current cattle enterprise structure. This can encourage businesses to evaluate and compare different options available within the context and limitations of their farm, explore and adopt different systems, and may ultimately help to increase the resilience of individual businesses through an increased awareness of what it is they are trying to produce, how well they can produce it, and if their produce is actually sought after.



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