Thursday, 29 November 2012

Putting flock welfare first

The first Sheep Health and Welfare Conference, organised by the Sheep Health and Welfare Group (SHAWG) in collaboration with the National Sheep Association (NSA), took place in Worcester last week.

Over 200 farmers, vets, SQPs (animal medicines advisers) and industry stakeholders braved dire weather conditions to make it to the event, including one delegate who had a six hour journey from Devon! As EBLEX is a major supporter of SHAWG, we were delighted to see the industry coming together to discuss what is a major challenge for the industry.

While the conference presentations covered a range of issues, one which came to the fore was the benefit of having a flock health plan which addresses real problems on the farm and embracing the SCOPS (Sustainable Control of Parasites in Sheep) principles to reduce anthelmintic resistance. While most sheep farmers are aware that a health plan is desirable, there are undoubtedly some who treat it as a box-ticking exercise, while others have it as a standing item on their ‘to do’ list.

Hilary Mann of Waterend Farm, a firm advocate of health plans, spoke about how her plan has enabled her to reduce anthelmintic resistance by carrying out Faecal Egg Counts (FECs) and observing the SCOPS principles. Hilary’s impressive flock performance figures, combined with the fact that her approach has helped her save time and money, are certainly compelling arguments for those who remain unconvinced.

The day finished with a discussion about how the challenge of sheep scab could best be addressed in England. It was great to see unanimous support for an industry initiative for the disease, which independent livestock specialist Lesley Stubbings believes is currently costing the industry upwards of £8 million on treatments alone.

Due to the structure of the sheep industry in England, a large number of animal movements are inevitable, meaning individual flock biosecurity remains the only way to ensure a flock stays clean. There was broad support at the conference for measures to penalise those who ‘break the rules’ and fail to minimise the risk of the disease being spread between flocks.

While eradication of the disease isn’t currently a realistic goal, by pulling together as an industry there are significant steps we can take to reduce the impact of the problem.

All the presentations from the Sheep Health and Welfare Conference are now available on the EBLEX website.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Hong Kong – the springboard to China

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention in the industry that beef has been at the forefront of the political agenda in the last week.

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson led a trade delegation to Hong Kong to promote beef exports, the highlight of which was a reception hosted by EBLEX at the Hong Kong Jockey Club and attended by officials, importers, restaurateurs and journalists. Guests were served a fore rib of beef, dry aged on the bone for 28 days, with carving and serving supervised by EBLEX foodservice manager Hugh Judd.

While Mr Paterson acknowledged that we have been exporting to Hong Kong for some time, importantly he added that it would act as a springboard for breaking into the Chinese market. As we’re well aware China does present huge opportunities, but facilitating market access is a long process and we are under no illusion that this will happen tomorrow. Market access could take a number of years as we saw with the pig meat sector but we are moving in the right direction.

That said, the Hong Kong trip succeeded in underlining the importance exports can and do play in contributing to our economy. It also generated considerable high-profile media coverage for our products in a region which is seen as key for future growth.

Not only did it celebrate the fact that beef rib cuts and other specified bone-in products can now be exported to Hong Kong from Britain, and showcased Quality Standard beef to potential importers for EBLEX, the importance of which can’t be overstated.

As the Secretary of State said in his 'diary of a trade mission', ‘This is a global race, and we’re not going to compete by sitting at home – let’s get out there and show the world how great Britain is.’

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Access all areas

Access to information, or rather the immediacy of access to information, is something that is increasingly taken as a given these days.

While rural broadband remains an issue in some areas of the country, the government has allocated £530 million during the current spending review period to stimulate commercial investment to roll out high speed broadband in rural communities.

A commitment has also been made to invest up to £150 million to improve mobile coverage in the UK for consumers and businesses in areas where coverage is poor or non-existent.

All of this is very encouraging and poignant, bearing in mind the meteoric rise in the use of smartphones and tablets to access information from pretty much anywhere. We are already seeing a rise in the number of people accessing our website from tablets and smartphones. Our website covers everything from technical information in our Better Returns Programme section and market insight to the latest industry news and is well used. The latest figures are very telling – 30 per cent of visits to the site in October were via mobile devices, with the iPad and iPhone topping the list.

In October, the number of individual visitors to the site was up 28 per cent on September at 10,846, while the site was viewed 25,152 times – up 30 per cent. Similarly, page views increased by 32 per cent at 142,961 with markets and auction reports pages proving to be most popular.

Clearly, our website is providing valuable and useful information for visitors. The next step? Work to enhance the website is constant and there is ongoing debate about creating a smartphone app to complement it, but we remain to be convinced that it would be a cost-effective use of levy payers’ money. The overarching question is whether there is a single app idea that would be of most interest/use to the majority of levy payers, thus making it worth the investment. We want to ensure we offer the most useful tools possible to the industry and make sure livestock farmers can make the most of improvements in rural connectivity. So, if you do have any thoughts on apps or online tools that would be useful, contact us on

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Emissions are falling, but the challenge remains for livestock sector

The issue of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from livestock production remains a contentious one. It is still a young science so refinements in measurements continue and different countries look at things in different ways. There is no single agreed methodology. The one absolute is that industry detractors and certain single issue pressure groups are quick to point to any figures (whether they understand them or not) as definitive proof of damage to the environment and that we should eat less meat as a result. If only we as an industry could be so sweeping and absolute in our responses. We try to rely on latest science and data though.

It is therefore always welcome when we get some positive news on this front to add to the library of information we can refer to when asked for polite, brief comment on the issue in the face of screaming, negative headlines.

Research commissioned by EBLEX, working with The E-CO2 Project, modelling emissions levels using historic data from the last 40 years, suggests GHGs from both beef and sheep meat production in the UK have fallen every decade since 1970.  The beef carbon footprint fell from 23.05kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (kg CO2-e) per kilogram liveweight, to 14.41kg CO2-e between 1970 and 2010. For sheep, the figure fell from 13.8kg CO2-e to 11.78kg CO2-e over that period.

 For the beef sector, that is a reduction in GHG output of 9.4% every decade. The figures for sheep, though hindered by a lack of consistent quality data, still showed a reduction over the period. In the last ten years alone, this delivered a credible reduction of 9.3% through greater output per ewe and reduced reliance on artificial fertiliser. There are limitations in the data, but the trend is irrefutable.

However, with the UK Climate Change Act 2008 requiring an overall reduction of 80% in GHGs from 1990 levels by 2050 across the UK economy, and Defra setting the agriculture sector an interim target to reduce its contribution to GHGs by 11% by 2020 based on 2008 figures, the scale of challenge for beef and sheep meat producers should not be underestimated.

As an industry which relies heavily on extensive production systems, it highlights the challenge faced by sheep farmers in particular looking to produce food from some of the poorest land the country has to offer. The climate and terrain play such a large part in production output, and technological and management improvements are hard won.

It would also be helpful if we were allowed to “count” the positives we bring to the environment, such as managing the countryside and keeping grazed land as an efficient carbon sink. And of, course, there is an environmental cost to whatever food production enterprise uses a given area of land. Take all these points together and we see a very different picture from the one so often painted.

We can only hope that when the FAO publishes a new assessment of GHG emissions from livestock production, hopefully before the end of the year, we will see a figure closer to 9% of all global emissions coming from livestock emissions, rather than the 18 per cent so often quoted. And we suspect when you drill down into that further, the emissions from beef may be as little as five per cent. But don’t expect solid science to stop the screaming headlines just yet.