3rd February 2021

Opinion: It’s not how we collect data – it’s how we use it.


It’s not how we collect data – it’s how we use it.

By Beth Alexander, Cattle and Sheep Specialist with Quality Meat Scotland


 Against the odds, confidence in the sheep market has gone from strength to strength in 2020, from breeding sales through to store sales, and now the finished price is already above the new season peak. For an upland farmer with a crop of hill lambs coming to finish, it’s pleasing to benefit from this positive market fluctuation. Despite this peak in price, we must look towards the long-term sustainability of sheep farming, particularly in the hills.

The economic reality of farming in the hills is challenging with a high dependence on subsidy support as shown in the latest Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Cattle and Sheep Enterprise Costings. Surely we cannot continue this reliance on support for generations to come? There has been a large reduction in Scotland’s sheep population over recent years, predominantly in the hills. Production challenges such as predation and black loss, are often outwith the control of the farmer yet can have a major impact on financial performance and job satisfaction. However, there are areas with clear opportunities for progress. Integrated land management is going to be key for the sustainability of businesses going forward in both economic and environmental terms. Upland and hill farming does not go hand in hand with high productivity. A balance of optimum productivity and good land management practices is more viable and sustainable.

Innovation and widespread uptake in technology is an important factor for successful, integrated land management, but a lack of productivity in upland areas has been a barrier for uptake of technological advances – the classic chicken and egg situation. This poses the question: how do we encourage uptake in technology and efficient practices in upland farms when many of these places struggle for a decent broadband connection?

I think we need to strip it right back. Performance recording within your own flock or herd with a year-on-year comparison is a good start. Simply noting scanning percentage, following through to lambing percentage and then weaning percentage. This minimises investment required but starts to build a picture of performance which can then be scrutinised to look for small gains. Many of us will note these figures down in our diaries, or notebooks, but what do we actually do with all this data, that’s at our fingers?

It’s not how we collect data; it is how we use it.

For those looking for the next stage, SMART farming technologies are evolving to collect this data for us to help make better management decisions. Collecting and developing datasets is vital for the industry to build a picture of what sustainable livestock farming really looks like. We can then use this data to market and showcase Scotch Beef PGI and Scotch Lamb PGI to consumers both at home and abroad.

In 2020, the importance of hill farming to the wider rural economy and the role of hill farmers as land managers has been made more evident to the public. Looking back to March, the arrival of the pandemic turned the public’s attention to what is on our doorsteps. Our Perthshire glen was filled with hill walkers throughout the summer and many are still braving the winter elements. This has posed a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate the public goods hill farming offers. The disadvantages of farming in the uplands due to the unfavourable climates and rugged terrain offers a unique opportunity. Hill farming maintains habitats and wildlife species, boosting biodiversity whilst supporting rural communities which are depleting in numbers – perhaps a positive outcome of the pandemic will be the reversal of the latter.

Ultimately, there can be a bright future for upland livestock farming, but we have to adapt, using a multipronged approach. Utilising technology to improve performance, delivering public goods and environmental management.

Then maybe good returns like we’ve had in 2020 won’t be as rare!




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