Comment: CAP changes needed to avoid disaster

David Steel's Spitting Image puppet backtracked ' will QMS do the same?
David Steel's Spitting Image puppet backtracked ' will QMS do the same?
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I CAN’T help but feel that the ­optimistically-titled “Planning for Profit” initiative – aimed at encouraging beef and lamb producers to make better use of financial budgeting and technological developments – has to owe more to aspiration than straightforward economics.

The upbeat title of the Quality Meat Scotland-led project somehow reminds me of a sketch from the old satirical TV show, Spitting Image.

Back in the 1980s when David Steel, the leader of the Liberal Party, had formed the alliance with the SDP, the show had his puppet practicing a ­conference speech in which he back-pedalled on his famous morale-boosting “Go back to your constituencies – and prepare for government” line.

Apparently realising that it seemed overly optimistic, there was a paring back of expectations, with the puppet eventually settling on the wording “Go back to your constituencies – and prepare for a bit of a disappointment”.

I really hope that QMS won’t have to carry out a similar bit of back-pedalling as it persuades us to take a close look at the financial figures being generated by our herds – but sadly my gut feeling tells a different story.

Now, I guess like a lot of farmers, I’ve tended to avoid paying too much attention to the hard sums that highlight the financial performance of my coos. True, that might just be bad practice, but results vary widely depending on which figures you use – and include – in the calculations.

Whichever figures you do go with, though, the results seldom make pretty reading – and there’s precious little reward in constantly finding out how much you’re losing.

Ever since I can remember, we’ve been getting told that suckler coos are a great way of losing money. Even the very organisations that are currently attempting to convince us to reverse the downward trend in the national herd have been churning out figures on a regular basis that unfailingly highlight just how much the average producer is losing for every cow he keeps.

So, if raising production is their aim, you would have to wonder if encouraging farmers to take a long, hard look at the financial side might not actually produce the opposite effect to the one intended.

For it is a sad fact that many of those who have taken a magnifying glass to their accounts and based their decision on hard economics have already put the cows down the road, for them never to return.

But establishing and maintaining a herd has always been a long-term commitment and others have stuck with it – often taking our industry’s eternally optimistic view that things will “pick up next year”. The cold, icy winds of harsh economics have been picking away at this rose-tinted view.

The move away from mixed farming towards specialisation and concentration on core activities has helped accelerate changes in attitudes to keeping coos.

And there’s no getting away from the fact that the drastically disproportionate penalty system imposed on our support payments – which saw even minor infringements in one small enterprise result in considerable percentage cuts across all schemes – has also played its part in producers bidding adieu to the coo.

But the mention of support regimes runs us smack-bang into the elephant in the room in any discussion on future profitability for beef producers: even if figures might be used to show that the top 25 per cent of beef producers can make some sort of profit without support, that only highlights the fact that the other 75 per cent can’t.

And even a cursory look at what is facing us under the Scottish Government’s plans for implementing the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) shows that beef producers are set to be by far and away the hardest hit sector – with many facing the very real prospect of losing 30, 40 or even 50 per cent of their support.

Descriptions of the effects that these moves will have on the beef industry have topped out the scale of injustice – with conservative commentators using the term “hammered” while others feel that even “shafted” is an underestimate.

So maybe, rather than planning for profit, we should be opening our eyes to what is facing us – and focusing on the fact that, without radical changes to the way the CAP proposals are going to be implemented, beef producers will have to be prepared for a lot more than just “a bit of a disappointment”.