It’s easy to forget how big and important Scotland’s beef business is. But we were reminded on Monday night when Jim McLaren, chairman of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), spoke at Kelso Agricultural Discussion Society.
The gist of his message was clear – worth £247million annually, Scotch beef is the largest Scottish grocery brand in Britain, a quality brand recognised by more than 50 per cent of London shoppers.
It’s a brand, he said, that has to be protected and promoted; for instance, “Scotch beef” is officially recognised as of European Union PGI (product of geographical indication) status and applies only to cattle born, reared and finished for market in Scotland.
Promotion is vital he said. QMS spends £2.7million a year of its £4.8million levy on it. A lot of that is spent in the target south of England market, but he believes there are “exciting potential markets” such as China and Japan offering “a fantastic opportunity”.
Think about it, he said. More than 100 cities in China each have a population bigger than Scotland’s; why, QMS could target Shanghai alone with its population of more than 30million looking for food with the only requirement – presumably of the better off and more discerning – that it is not Chinese food.
The problem is that after recent difficult years, almost capped by this year’s abysmal weather, there might not be enough beef cattle in Scotland to supply any large export market. The number of beef cows for breeding is at its lowest for 30 years with only tentative hints of recovery.
The rising cost of basics such as feed and fertiliser, uncertainty about support payments if and when changes are agreed to the CAP, and a declining number of abattoirs are also factors affecting optimism.
Plus, it was suggested to him, large numbers of store cattle from Scotland going to England and imports of live cattle from Ireland.
As always, the export/import situation for any farm product can baffle. Scotland’s main markets at present for beef exports are the Netherlands and Ireland. Of imports of beef, 72 per cent come from Ireland. Couldn’t imports and exports be better co-ordinated? Not in a free market, and probably because we’re talking about different qualities of beef.
The message I took from the meeting was that beef farmers must concentrate on the potential of exports and their reputation for Scotch beef quality must be protected and promoted.
Asked about the effectiveness of a promotion budget of £2.7million, Mr McLaren gave the well-known reply of a successful businessman who said he knew that only about half the money he spent on advertising was effective – but didn’t know which half.
Aberdeen Angus breeder James Playfair criticised many carcases at the recent ScotBeef competition as too lean, Mr McLaren said lean Scotch beef had a role to play on the home market and for export.
“If we can make it more consistent and improve eating quality so much the better. But promotion of it as a lean, healthy, product works.”
Ian Watson, chairman of Farm Stock (Scotland), the country’s biggest livestock marketing co-operative, urged farmers to co-operate more effectively both for production and marketing.
Farm Stock, acting as an umbrella organisation, represents six lamb and beef marketing groups with a total of almost 1,100 full members and 600 occasional users. Last year it marketed 125,000 lambs, compared with 91,000 three years ago, and more than 4,000 cattle compared with about 1,800 three years ago. Turnover last year was £12.27million.
The objective, he said, is 150,000 lambs by 2015 and 10,000 cattle. But 2012 has been tough, largely because bad weather has meant a late glut of poor quality, wet and dirty lambs, many with health problems such as liver fluke, fears about whether payments will be made by importers from countries with euro problems, a slump in the value of sheepskins, lack of forage and abattoir problems.
In short, all bad. The result has been a slump in prices of up to £20 per lamb. But farmers could help themselves, he suggested, even in the toughest times: “There is scope for much better production planning by our members to match seasonal supply and demand.”
The more farmers co-operated, the better regulated supply and demand, then the more clout a big marketing group would have with abattoirs and supermarkets. Although, he said almost wistfully, co-operation is still not popular with farmers.
That’s true. Mr Watson’s hopes for expansion might take a little longer than he hopes.