It was the early 19th-century parson Sydney Smith, noted for his dry asides on life, who said that a surgical operation was required to get a joke well into the Scots’ consciousness.
Quality Meat Scotland’s sheep strategy team, sheep farmers who have been doing it for years and, last and probably least, me, feel the same way about getting sheep farmers in general to accept the benefits of flock recording and high index rams.
It works, that’s the point. Recording and using firm statistics to establish a ram’s potential are more effective than judging its looks by eye. At Scotsheep 2012 last week – good attendance, wet and cold, but why should Cumnock be any different to the rest of Britain? – the QMS sheep strategy group tried again. On three farms, results from ewes mated with high-performance Suffolk rams consistently produced more profitable results than those mated with farm-choice rams.
Results, as might be expected, varied, from a benefit of £1.19 per ewe up to £5. But the average benefit of using a high-index ram was £2.69. Reasons given included slightly heavier birthweights for lambs, better conformation, faster growth to reach sale target weights earlier, and a better survival rate.
Rod McKenzie, development manager for the strategy group, said: “Once more we have proved, on different farms with different constraints, that there is a consistency and reliability in using high-index tups that rewards lamb producers handsomely.”
He pointed out that as lamb prices have already levelled out for this summer, never having reached anything like last year’s early season prices of £120 a lamb, and as costs continue to rise, then £2 to £3 more per head for using high-index tups is significant.
That message is getting through. But Sydney Smith would have sympathised with the effort needed.
If that old joke about something being “déjà vu all over again” hadn’t been done to death I would have been tempted to use it about another “happening” at Scotsheep. That was the Scottish Government announcement that there is to be an inquiry into the problems of unnecessary bureaucracy – shorthand term, red tape – faced by farmers.
As more than one commentator has pointed out, we have been here before. Many times. One of the more recent inquiries into red tape and farming was in 2000. But as a lad in the late 1960s I can remember a farming magazine headline along the lines of “Farmers Fed Up With Filling In Forms” and my father, looking at his deep-litter filing system, agreeing emphatically.
The problem, then as now and at all points in between, is that if an industry is based substantially on public-money subsidies then there have to be checks to see that those subsidies are only paid to those who follow the rules.
The thin dividing line is between farmers accepting that there must be some monitoring and their feeling that every subsidy rule applied under EU legislation in Britain is gold-plated. That is, enforced more stringently than anywhere else in the EU and that qualifying means recording and keeping more detail than any civil servant has a right to demand. And, the real crunch, farmers think that the financial penalties for minor mistakes or discrepancies in form-filling are far too severe.
Their feelings and grievances are probably correct. They also have to contend with the physical frustrations of cattle and sheep losing ear tags, the human factor of making a mistake in recording a 16-digit number, and having to do much of the initial recording under difficult conditions involving fractious animals and bad weather.
The fact remains that if tens of thousands of pounds a year in subsidy depend on correct recording and accurate form-filling, then it has to be done. I don’t think that yet another committee of inquiry into red tape, even led by that old warhorse Brian Pack, will solve anything. You probably didn’t read it here first either, because every farmer I’ve met in the past week had already reached that conclusion unaided.
Probably of more interest to the several thousand farmers and stockmen at Scotsheep was the recent news that for the fourth successive year wool prices are up, this time by an average 22p per kilo, and that prospects for further increases and exports look good, according to the British Wool Marketing Board.
The best quality fine wool, Cheviot, is £1.51 per kilo, Texel £1.36, Suffolk £1.28, Mule £1.43, Blackface £1.18 and Swaledale 62p. Four years ago the average price of wool was 33p and some of the poorest quality was worth virtually nothing. With cost of shearing 80p per sheep and upwards, farmers were losing money on wool.
The wool board, the last such board in British farming that has the statutory duty to accept all wool offered to it and try to find a market, has been through tough times in the past 15 years. The board now takes some of the credit for better prices – led mainly by demand from China, India and other rapidly growing economies – because of the way it has controlled sales, marketing and storage.
A little good news is always welcome, especially in a summer like this.