Farming in the Uplands - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board


  A summary of the issues facing upland livestock farmers prepared by the EBLEX division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board for the EFRA enquiry into the Commission for Rural Communities report "High Ground High Potential—a future for England's upland communities" published June 2010.

  EBLEX is one of six divisions under the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. It deals exclusively with beef and sheep production in England. It is funded by a statutory levy collected at the point of slaughter. Activity is split into two key areas:

    — Helping the beef and lamb supply chain to be more efficient; and

    — adding value to the beef and sheep meat industry.

  1.  It is widely recognised that farmers involved in livestock production are responsible for the stewardship of the bulk of our upland landscapes and habitats. In many cases, livestock farming represents the only opportunity to manage land through agriculture with land either too steep for cultivation or above the tree line at which point even forestry becomes impossible. In cases where level low lying fields can be cultivated these are often used for growing animal feed providing beneficial rotations and biodiversity.

  2.  Upland livestock farms play a pivotal role in rural communities which exist in these regions, by way of their employment, contribution to the rural economy, its associated supply industry and use of local services, plus the social networking aspects of rural life through community events such as Agricultural shows, weekly livestock markets and regular Young Farmers activities.

  3.  EBLEX Business Pointers information (amortised real farm business cost data) shows that livestock farmers in Less Favoured Areas have experienced a prolonged period of negative income when all costs are factored in. The cattle sector has seen prices fluctuate over the last two years, and are currently well below the cost of production, whilst an increase in sheep prices over the last two years was critically needed to inject confidence and some financial viability in upland areas. This has largely been due to shortages in production/supply and a strong export market helped by the weakness of sterling. Neither of these drivers have long term stability.

  Despite improvements in efficiency increased costs for feed, fertiliser and fuel have meant that any increases in income have been largely cancelled out. In conclusion, without support through the Single Farm Payment, environment schemes and the historical HLCA/HFA payments to farms in LFAs both upland beef and sheep farms would be operating at considerable losses and not be viable.

Net Margin
inc non cash



Average AverageAverage Top Third

LFA Suckler Beef
£/Cow -£356-£378 -£298-£176.05
LFA Breeding Sheep £/Ewe -£37.51-£34.28 -£31.30-£11.03

  4.  EBLEX Business Pointers indicates considerable differences in returns and output between average and top third producers. See the table above. This indicates a positive opportunity to encourage producers to maximise efficiency through uptake of best practice and management. The outcome can be seen as a win : win in terms of both financial and climate change goals, with more efficient producers making more money, and generating less green house gases per Kg of production.

  EBLEX experience though the delivery and monitoring of its Better Returns Programmes shows that knowledge transfer of existing and new ideas should be tailored to the needs and systems of upland producers but can benefit from access to expertise, materials and scale from a nationally coordinated programme. Whilst "Demonstration Farms" have their uses, delivery of activity should not be focused on these alone. Demonstration farms should be used to show the challenges and benefits of practical adoption of new ideas, but these messages need to be rolled out wider and delivered locally across the region, which should involve local farm events where a specific element of best practice can be shown. Where possible delivery needs to be local, avoiding the need for long distance travel and valuable time away from the farm. It should also be joined up with support materials and wider communication to reinforce messages.

  Levy boards can play a pivotal role in the coordination and delivery of both R&D and Knowledge Transfer information using their experience, network of contacts and expertise. The RDPE offers a potential funding stream to provide training and Knowledge Transfer, but access needs to be more flexible and easier for those involved.

  5.  Upland livestock production is largely focused on breeding herds and flocks, with the majority of farms producing store animals sold for further finishing on other farms, often in the lowlands where more abundant and economic winter fodder and forage exists. This is a vital function in the cycle of English livestock production and helps spread the supply of meat across the year.

  6.  The other focus on upland breeding production is the vital source of replacement breeding stock to farms further down country. This cascade of genetics makes the uptake of the best breeding techniques and genetics on upland farms of huge significance to livestock production in England as a whole. Whilst the techniques to record and identify animals of superior genetic merit are well recognised across the beef and sheep sectors, its uptake has been slower in upland production systems. Scale of enterprise and a focus on maternal breeding traits creates real challenges, but tradition and pride in traditional stockmanship skills also create a barrier to the adoption of new ideas and technology. This is an area where the sector has much to gain, and communication between buyers and breeders needs to improve, to ensure animals are fit for purpose in sustainable livestock enterprises for the future. This is an area where support for knowledge transfer and the uptake of new technology such as electronic identification can play a positive role.

  7.  Knowledge transfer of best practice should take account of the environmental schemes adopted on farms which make a significant contribution to income for upland farms. Environmental schemes often bring with them specific management restrictions which can conflict with practices to maximise output potential from an enterprise. Consideration should be given to specific research and dissemination of advice to enable producers to find the right balance between compliance with scheme rules and the need for output efficiency to maximise income from both environmental schemes and production.

  8.  The shortage of young people and lack of opportunity for new entrants in the livestock sector is no more acute than in upland areas. A lack of real profitability over a sustained period has tainted the industry as a career of choice for many young people originating from upland areas. A period of long term profitability and career options are desperately needed to encourage young people back into the industry. Whilst figures indicate an increase in higher education provision for the land based sector, much of this has been in general education with broader qualifications keeping the students options open. In reality there has been a decline in specialist livestock training facilities and courses which has tracked the industry's fortunes to the point where rural training centres lack investment and expertise to provide the rural skills for those young people who still want a career in upland livestock production. Investment and a structure to allow new entrants to gain a foothold in the industry are urgently needed.

  9.  Surveys by EBLEX show that farm household access to computers and the internet is high, and whilst its use in the farm business is growing, its impact is still relatively limited as a business tool or a source for new information. Whilst some of this will be down to the slower adoption of computer technology by an older generation of farmers, access and speed of broadband technology is acutely felt in remote rural areas. Opportunities exist to use web technology, for functions such as online movement records through BCMS, online trading and purchases or access to latest market information and industry news though levy boards and farming media. Because of their remoteness it is even more critical rural businesses have fast and sufficient access to new media business tools to enable them to take full advantage of the internet.

October 2010

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