The highlights and key successes achieved over the past three years were discussed at the final Cairngorms monitor farm meeting this month.
The monitor farmers, George and Fiona Gordon and son Charles, hosted their first monitor farm meeting in November 2011, joining the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland.
From their home base – “Lost” in Strathdon, west of Aberdeen - the Gordons farm over a number of units under a variety of tenancy agreements. Enterprises are based on breeding cattle and sheep, plus crops.
“Some of the best meeting topics for ourselves and the community group, have included ventilation for cattle buildings, money issues - in particular Succession Planning - liver fluke, soil sampling and grassland improvement,” commented Charles Gordon.
“Another meeting which made a big difference to us took place in June 2012, when the group helped with 20 acres of what should have been young turnips. The crop had initially thrived after spring sowing, but by the meeting, the turnips as well as the weeds, had all disappeared!
“Following the group’s suggestions and kale/rape hybrid and stubble turnip seed from Watson Seeds, we power harrowed the ground to reduce compaction and then re-sowed with the forage catch crops, which gave us an excellent crop of winter feed, far more than we could have hoped for a few months before.”
At the spring 2014 meeting, Jamie Robertson of Livestock Management Services had ignited smoke bombs to illustrate air flow inside the Gordon’s cattle sheds.
“We house cattle in a variety of buildings,” stated George Gordon. “Pneumonia has been a problem in a couple of the buildings and it was great to get advice on how to tackle this problem in the individual buildings. Information on things like how much moisture just one cow produces in a day (10 gallons), helped us realise how important it is to get good air flow through a building, while making sure we’re not chilling young calves.”
The making of money is the heartbeat of every monitor farm, yet the actual management of money is rarely discussed. At one of the monitor farm meetings, accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael had outlined constructive approaches to tax planning, capital gains tax, insurance and in particular – succession planning.
“Succession planning is something all of us in farming must sort out,” remarked Charles Gordon. “And judging by the number of folk who came to that meeting, it seemed pretty obvious that there’s a big interest in finding out how to make sure farming businesses are passed on properly.”
Liver fluke was identified as a significant problem early during the Gordon’s monitor farm term. Dr Philip Skuce of the Moredun Research Institute, a specialist in this destructive and ingenious parasite, spoke at a monitor farm meeting.
“Fluke didn’t used to be a big issue for us, and we hadn’t really understood how liver fluke operates,” Charles Gordon recalled. “But Dr Skuce explained the life cycle in a way we could easily follow. Once we understood the steps in fluke’s life cycle, we could work out how to tackle the problem. We now keep stock off the wetter areas and are much more vigilant.”
Before becoming monitor farmers the Gordons had only done a small amount of soil sampling. Through the monitor farm project their land was GPS soil mapped by George Duncan Agri Solutions.
“I was sceptical as to how useful the information would be,” commented Charles Gordon. “But we were really surprised, and will certainly routinely soil test in the future. In the first year we saved over £1,600 on lime alone. Normally we lime before ploughing for barley, and would have spread six loads, but by following the GPS mapping, we only needed five loads.
“Some of the grassland also tested low for Phosphate and pH, so we’re remedying this over three years, and already the silage crops are better.”
James Hardie of George Duncan, along with some of the community group, had also recommended reacting to soil analysis results showing low phosphate levels in land for spring barley.
Traditionally the Gordons had used 2 cwt per acre of 16:16:16 fertiliser at sowing. Mr Hardie’s recommendation of 3 cwt of 8:24:24 was a few pounds more costly.
“The extra cost was well worth it,” explained Charles Gordon. “The barley yield was well up, as was the straw, which is really important in this area – we house cattle for over half the year!”
As monitor farmers over the past three years, the Gordons have welcomed local farmers plus a variety of speakers, onto their farm. “I’ve really enjoyed the three years,” remarked Charles Gordon. “Being a monitor farmer certainly changes the way you think. And the best piece of advice I could give to another farmer taking on a similar role, is to hold nothing back, especially if things aren’t working!”
At the final meeting of the Cairngorms monitor farm, community group members and sponsors unanimously expressed the hope that a similar project will be continued within the Cairngorms National Park.
For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings can be found here.