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.

8. Capital items, collaboration and access to training

The group recognises that the uptake of best practice for the benefit of the climate and environment may often be prohibited by the initial capital cost required to invest in new infrastructure and equipment or upgrades to existing ones. It is therefore proposed that the scheme should make part-funding towards the acquisition of a list of pre-defined capital items available, but only where these tie in with the measures of the various management options. This means that participating businesses must commit to the relevant management option(s) before they can access a specific capital item. It is important to ensure that businesses can only access such grant-funding for items that provide actual value for money in order to prevent the scheme from supporting investments where these cannot be justified in terms of emissions reductions and/or efficiency purposes. Such grant-funding should therefore be subject to the participating businesses submitting a cost-benefit analysis where a case can be made by the applicants that the proposed investment serves the purpose of helping the cattle enterprise achieve the outcomes of the relevant management option(s).

The group strongly recommends that access to capital grant-funding should not be restricted to individual participating businesses. Instead, collaborative projects and producer groups should also be able to access funding through this scheme. This would open up access to innovative technology to a much wider range of businesses, and in particular support smaller producers by allowing farmers to join forces in order to be able to justify certain capital investments. Past government schemes have allowed for three or more businesses to jointly invest in capital equipment and receive financial support as part of such schemes. This should be encouraged and supported within this scheme to reduce barriers to access for capital grant-funding and maximise the adoption and utilisation of such items.

The group furthermore recommends that grant-funding towards capital items should be limited to a proportion of the actual cost of investment, and be capped at a pre-defined limit per business (per annum). Consideration should be given to the proportionate contribution being higher for collaborative applications, and for participants that are located in more disadvantaged areas of Scotland, much in line with other schemes.

The group also strongly recommends that access to capital items should trigger access to relevant training in order to ensure that businesses can make best use of newly acquired technology to fully utilise its potential for the benefit of the climate and environment, and to enhance on-farm efficiencies. This includes the provision of appropriate training to existing business employees but should also make training, possibly including apprenticeship programmes, available to enable businesses to take on apprentices, trainees and new employees. People are a hugely important part of the agricultural industry and despite significant technological advances, digitalisation and automation, always will be.

Consideration should be given to making such training count towards the CPD minimum requirement forming part of this scheme.

The following sections outline proposed capital items for which the group believes financial support should be made available through this scheme due to their distinct benefits for the climate and environment.

8.1. Lime

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the purchasing of lime as an environmental management tool part of the SBCS.

Relevance: The pH of soil greatly influences plant growth and performance by determining the availability and uptake of nutrients by the sward/crop from within the soil. If soil is too acidic, any nutrient inputs may not be sufficiently utilised by the plants. This can lead to poor input utilisation, limited crop response, nutrient wastage, and resulting environmental concerns due to a higher risk of nutrient leaching and increased greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced farm profitability through an inefficient nutrient management system.

Aim: The application of lime on the basis of up-to-date soil analysis helps to reduce soil acidity, thereby making nutrients more readily available to the plants while at the same time supporting and enhancing soil microbial activity which relies on a certain minimum pH. This ensures that any nutrients present in the soil or applied via organic or synthetic fertiliser can be utilised more efficiently to boost crop performance and reduce wastage. This helps to increase the availability of high quality home-grown livestock feed and reduces nutrient losses along with the resulting greenhouse gas emissions while delivering distinct benefits for the soil health.

8.2. Grass seed

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the purchasing of certain seed mixtures containing Nitrogen fixing legumes, suitable herbs and other plants for sward and animal health purposes, and/or a high diversity of different beneficial plant species.

Relevance: The composition of a grassland sward can significantly influence livestock performance and it is therefore important that the suitable plant types and varieties are chosen when carrying out full reseeding or surface-seeding across an existing sward. The chosen seed mixture and its specific requirements will also determine the level of field management and nutrient inputs that are needed in order to generate a suitable crop and animal response. A sward that contains a limited proportion of Nitrogen-fixing plants potentially requires high levels of Nitrogen fertiliser to meet plant nutrient demands. A lack of plant diversity can reduce sward resilience by making grasslands more vulnerable to adverse conditions such as drought or wet spells as a result of a lesser variety of different plants with individual characteristics and abilities to cope with differing environmental factors, and a limited diversity can shorten the growing season. This can lead to a higher requirement for crop inputs and a lower crop performance, thereby causing greenhouse gas and livestock performance inefficiencies.

Aim: Choosing a seed mixture that contains sufficient levels of Nitrogen-fixing legumes can help to reduce the overall reliance of the sward on Nitrogen fertiliser, thereby lowering fertiliser use and any associated greenhouse gas emissions. Sowing a diverse mixture which contains a range of different grasses, herbs and legumes in line with local soil, climatic and other environmental factors can build up sward resilience to withstand weather shocks and make the most of the growing season through early growth in the spring and late growth during autumn. Optimising sward production will help to improve livestock performance and a longer grazing season can reduce the need for supplementary feed purchases to address shortfalls in grazing systems. In addition, the inclusion of certain herbs can boost livestock performance through anthelmintic properties that can help to reduce the worm burden in grazed livestock without the need for additional animal health treatments.

These factors can significantly increase overall cattle efficiencies and reduce the emissions intensity from the production system, and a healthy and diverse sward contributes towards a healthy soil.

8.3. Covering slurry stores

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the expenses associated with covering slurry stores.

Relevance: The efficacy of slurry applications to a crop and with it the efficient utilisation of available nutrients to generate a suitable crop response depends on a number of factors including the way slurry is stored. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions associated with slurry management, and with it the atmospheric loss of important nutrients contained within the slurry, occur during storage. Open slurry stores may also have a limited storage capacity due to the addition of rainwater, which is a particular problem in areas where annual precipitation is high. This results in a potentially significant dilution of the collected slurry which not only leads to higher application rates necessary to obtain sufficient nutrient input levels, but requires for applications to take place more frequently due to the store reaching its capacity more quickly. More diluted slurry applications can increase the risk of nutrient leaching, and more regular applications as a means of waste management rather than nutrient management can increase greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient wastage, and use more fuel.

Aim: Covering open slurry stores significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions associated with slurry storage, and preventing the dilution of slurry with rainwater can increase the storage capacity, thereby allowing for slurry applications to be carried out in a more targeted manner when the plants are actively growing and able to better utilise the nutrients. Lesser quantities of slurry can be applied without losing nutrients which in turn makes the whole process of slurry application more efficient, less time-consuming and cheaper. This leads to further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with slurry handling and application.

8.4. Slurry spreading attachments

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the purchase of new slurry spreading attachments or upgrade of an existing slurry application system.

Relevance: The efficacy of slurry applications to a crop and with it the efficient utilisation of available nutrients for a suitable plant response depends on a number of factors including the way slurry is handled and applied. Poor handling or application practices can lead to the loss of nutrients which may result in significant greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient wastage. This not only results in a limited crop response and the potential need for additional fertiliser applications, but can lead to environmental concerns associated with diffuse pollution risks.

Aim: Ensuring that slurry is handled in such a way that minimises nutrient losses through volatilisation or leaching enables a farming business to obtain a better crop response from slurry applications and improved nutrient utilisation efficiencies. Such improvements can be gained from utilising low emissions slurry spreading equipment that is capable of better targeting slurry applications. This can potentially greatly reduce the need for any additional nutrient purchases and inputs, and reduce any associated greenhouse gas emissions and the risk of diffuse pollution issues occurring.

8.5. Precision livestock farming (PLF) and cattle monitoring technology

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the purchase of precision livestock and cattle monitoring equipment as part of a new setup or to upgrade an existing one.

Relevance: The ability to assess the performance of and monitor cattle groups and/or individual animals at different key stages of production or continuously is crucial to enable a farming business to identify superior bloodlines for breeding, select animals that are fit for sale and forecast when they reach their likely target weight, notice sub-performing animals to enable further investigation into potential underlying health and management issues, and allow for quick intervention where immediate issues such as calving difficulties or acute disease incidents occur. Precision input technology builds on such monitoring equipment and can utilise the collected information to better target any inputs such as feed or health treatments by allocating feed rations or administering products in line with known parameters.

Aim: Putting in place adequate cattle monitoring and performance recording equipment and/or precision input technology, or upgrading existing set-ups including the modification of cattle handling stands to incorporate weighing equipment for instance, enables the farming business to obtain clear data concerning animal productivity, health, genetic potential, and overall well-being. This allows for improved decision-making to take place, intercept early where problems arise, better target herd management and inputs to enhance cattle health, performance and welfare, and increase overall business planning and management. This helps to ultimately boost farm efficiencies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output and overall.

8.6. Precision grassland and crop technology

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the purchase of precision grassland and crop monitoring and/or production equipment as part of a new setup or to upgrade an existing one in order to benefit the cattle enterprise.

Relevance: Obtaining optimum grassland and/or crop performance levels depends on a wide range of factors including soil status and nutrient availability, and the ability to translate that information into accurate field management and input levels. Visual assessment and assumptions in line with best practice or research information can provide helpful guidance but is usually insufficient as a means to accurately identify specific performance levels and requirements of different plants at certain stages of production and across various areas within and/or between fields.

Aim: Putting in place adequate grassland and/or crop monitoring equipment to collect in-depth soil, environment and crop data, and feeding the collated information into precision input technology to enable variable rate application for instance can significantly increase input utilisation by better targeting and meeting the needs of the plant, thereby helping to generate a better crop response for improved overall efficiencies and a reduced emissions intensity. Total quantities of greenhouse gas emissions may also be reduced where such technology can be used to reduce input levels as a result of better grassland and/or crop management.

8.7. Novel technologies

Capital option: For applicants to receive financial assistance towards the purchase of novel technological equipment aimed at reducing net greenhouse gas emissions as part of a new setup or to upgrade an existing one. This may include technology to reduce the emissions intensity of the production system, or to lower overall greenhouse gas emissions from the cattle enterprise.

Relevance: Technological advancements and innovation through research and development are constantly being made and include improvements to and upgrades of existing technology, as well as the introduction of new systems and equipment. Accessing grant-funding to support the investment in such technology can be challenging in the early stages when it has not yet been widely adopted and when awareness and the availability of supporting case studies may be limited.

Aim: The Suckler Beef Climate group recognises that novel technologies can play an important part in accelerating efficiency improvements and/or greenhouse gas emissions reductions/capture. The group therefore recommends that grant-funding should be made available for well explained and justifiable projects that can clearly demonstrate the benefits of such investment on the basis of robust scientific and technical data. Such technology may take the form of home-grown implements and concepts, or be developed by adopting 'best available technology' (BAT) concepts from other parts of the world to adapt to the particular needs of the domestic farming industry, with the relevant equipment being manufactured in Scotland. The Scottish Government has made it clear that investing in new technology, particularly green technology, will form a key part of its post-Covid economic recovery plan, and this strategy ties in closely with the core aims of the Agricultural Transformation Programme.



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