22nd April 2014

Kintyre Farmer Set to Build on Monitor Farm Improvements

Although the Kintyre monitor farm has completed its three year term, monitor farmer Duncan Macalister of Glenbarr Farms, is determined to continue to build on and develop the initiatives introduced during the past three years.

Glenbarr Farms, a mixed 1,730 acre (700 ha) unit, located a few miles north of Campbeltown, on the west coast of the Kintyre Peninsula, supports a suckler herd of 140 mainly Aberdeen-Angus cows, just over 500 breeding ewes and approximately 120 acres of spring barley. Land type ranges from hill to shore, with sitka spruce woodland on the higher land occupying more than a third of the farm’s total acreage.

At the final official meeting, Mr Macalister and facilitator, Linda McLean, gave an overview of some of the many topics addressed since the first monitor farm meeting in March 2011.

Mr Macalister admitted that being the monitor farmer for the area had given him “a right good boot up the backside.” He told the group: “I realise now that I had been doing more or less the same thing for the previous 20 years.

“I’ve welcomed hearing the views and opinions of the community group as opportunities and challenges have been discussed. And I’ve really appreciated the support of the farmers who’ve been at the meetings. I hope they’ve also benefitted from the monitor farm experience. Sometimes just a little comment has helped to make a big difference.”

At the initial meeting Mr Macalister had highlighted breaking up the soil pan and lifting the pH levels as among the main tasks he wanted help with. Soil improvement has since been frequently discussed at the 17 monitor farm meetings.

“I had thought the solution to the farm’s soil structure and drainage issues was to plough deeply,” commented Mr Macalister. “Now I know that by doing that I was just burning diesel, burying organic matter and digging up rocks! Thanks to the monitor farm, I now realise that the main problem was on the top – surface compaction, which in the grassland is being resolved by aerating with a sward lifter.”

The deep tap root of red clover, sown after barley in 2012, has helped to break through the soil pan. “The improvement in soil structure is clear to see, and the red clover silage crop was so heavy the pit burst. The other good news is that the cattle really thrive on the red clover silage.

“I’ve also learnt that the organic matter in the soil’s top layer is the ‘engine’ which makes the soil work and I had greatly under-estimated the value of FYM (farmyard manure).”

The bedding from the winter-housed cattle is now spread on the arable ground before shallow, instead of deep, ploughing. “The muck combined with shallow ploughing has rapidly resulted in more worms in this land than we’ve ever seen before!

“I’m also converted to sward rejuvenation by over-seeding, instead of ploughing and doing a full re-seed.

“Some of the fields have recently been GPS soil mapped in detail, revealing big variations in soil compaction and pH levels within individual fields, which will be tackled. Thanks to the mapping, money will only be spent on the areas which need it.”

Livestock health issues have also been addressed. Since tests in summer 2012, confirming the breeding flock had been exposed to Toxoplasma, incoming gimmers have been routinely vaccinated for Toxoplasmosis. Scanning percentages have considerably improved.

In 2012 it was also established that the IBR virus was circulating in the breeding herd. The cattle are now routinely vaccinated against this respiratory disease which suppresses fertility and reduces performance.

Two Hereford bulls were purchased to breed “Black Baldies”, a rotational cross of Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus. The first home-bred, Hereford-sired Black Baldie heifers, calving at two years old, will produce their first Aberdeen-Angus sired calves this spring.

The cattle are in the process of being Electronically  Identified. “I plan to increase cow numbers to 150, and I’m determined to improve performance and productivity,” stated Mr Macalister.

“EID will help to identify the better as well as the poorer producing females, which will guide replacement selection as well as which ones to cull. It will also save a great deal of time in the cattle paperwork.”

A Whole Farm Review had recommended increasing barley acreage from 100 to 120, to reduce purchased feed costs. “This resulted in being able to sell over 40 surplus tons of barley, which added almost £10,000 to the bottom line.”

During an away day to a previous Wigtownshire monitor farmer – Robert Parker of Drumdow, near Stranraer - the group learnt that Mr Parker beds his cattle on “green” sawdust. Changing from straw to sawdust at Glenbarr Farms, has since resulted in over £1,100 per winter month, plus many hours of time, being saved on bedding cattle.

Additional projects are in the advanced planning stage, including more rotational grazing. “Access to water was a hurdle, but a new header tank on the hill will help resolve that,” said Mr Macalister.

Three years is a short time in farming however Mr Macalister’s enthusiasm to embrace the opportunities of the monitor farm project with gusto, has yielded more than tangible financial benefits.

“I believe that I’ve now developed the confidence to ask the right questions,” said Mr Macalister. “I also feel I now have the knowledge to get the heart of my farm, the soil, sorted. The soil is the foundation of the entire farm, and getting it right is fundamental to lifting performance and yield of all farming enterprises, with the ultimate aim being of course, to improve the most important thing – the bottom line!”

While the Kintyre monitor farm has concluded its three year term, Mr Macalister will host a Monitor Farm Open Day at Glenbarr Farms on 18th July.

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