Scots farmers plan to expand their herds as optimism hits ten-year high

SCOTTISH farmers are more optimistic about the industry's future than at any time in the past decade while every sector is planning to expand, a new survey suggests.

Professor Donald MacRae, the chief economist with Lloyds TSB, has surveyed Scottish farmers for the past 14 years.

Presenting his latest findings in Edinburgh yesterday, he said optimism was at a record high.

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He also found 84 per cent of farmers reckoned their business had been profitable in the past 12 months, though they were not asked to provide detailed figures.

Most of the boost in confidence came in the livestock sector, which in 2009 saw end prices rise dramatically. In contrast, the percentage of those growing grain and expecting to see a profit for their efforts fell back last year.

Despite an almost constant concern over low milk prices, some 87 per cent of those milking cows for a living said they expected to have had a profitable 2009; this figure was 13 per cent higher than last year.

Dairy farmers were also asked about their plans for the next five years, which the professor said would translate into a 7 per cent increase in the Scottish dairy herd by 2015

"There has been a large number of producers come out of the industry but it now seems as if those who are left are considering increasing their cow numbers," said MacRae.

Similarly, concerns over the loss of sheep and beef cattle in Scotland seem to be misplaced as producers in both sectors said they intended to increase their livestock numbers in the next five years. This would entail a 7.7 per cent increase in sheep, with a 2.6 per cent increase in beef.

Similar concerns over loss of numbers in both sheep and beef cattle in Scotland seem to be over with producers in both sectors intimating that they will increase their livestock numbers in the coming five years; in the sheep sector by 7.7 per cent and less so in beef cow numbers at 2.6 per cent.

Though the Scottish pig sector has suffered a dramatic downturn in recent times, pig farmers surveyed also indicated they planned to push up sow numbers. Their responses would translate into an 8.3 per cent increase.

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The Scottish pig sector has also seen a dramatic downward dive in recent times yet again those involved responded to the survey with indication of pushing up sow numbers; this time by 8.3 per cent.

Commenting on the figures, MacRae said it did seem as if the livestock industry was beginning to pick up after hitting the bottom of the recession.

Even after taking a hammering with low market prices for grain this past harvest, cereal growers also said they intend raising their acreage by 5 per cent in the next five years. Those taking part in the survey were also asked their views on the reform of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy. A slight majority wanted to see a move to area-based payments but almost half did not see the need for any connection between support payments and providing any so-called "public good".

There was an even stronger rejection of any linkage to reducing the carbon footprint through CAP schemes, but the strongest reaction – 90 per cent – ever recorded by the survey was reserved for those who continue to get subsidy payments despite no longer farming.

This report card on the industry also provided an opportunity for farmers to mark the Scottish Government on its performance over the past 12 months.

Plus marks were given for the handling of the bluetongue vaccination scheme and also the speedy issuing of Single Farm Payment cheques.

But the Scottish Rural Development Programme and the government's attitude to new entrants to farming were very much placed in the "must do better" category.

According to those surveyed, the Scottish Government performed worst in its handling of the introduction of electronic identification of sheep with only 1 per cent of those surveyed reckoning the politicians had performed well on this issue.

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One of the upsides of the positive view from the industry is that the highest percentage (62 per cent) ever of farmers surveyed indicated they had someone to take over the business when the current farmer retired.

• The survey took place between 1 December, 2009, and 7 January, 2010, some 1,692 survey forms were issued and the results were based on an analysis of the 377 completed forms.