2nd March 2010

Most northerly monitor farm attracts record attendance

The first meeting of the new Caithness and Sutherland monitor farm - Scotland’s most northerly monitor farm - attracted a record attendance of almost 100 people.

Westfield, four miles west of Thurso, is run by Johnny MacKenzie and his step-son, Gary Elder, who both admitted feeling somewhat daunted as the influx of fellow farmers and others involved in agriculture gathered at their steading.

Their apprehension, however, soon dissipated as they started discussing what they hope their involvement in the project will achieve.

Johnny MacKenzie, 49, is happy to subject their enterprise to the scrutiny of his peers as he believes the results can yield benefits for everyone involved.

“We’ve all got plenty of experience between us - both good and bad – and hopefully we can learn from each other,” he said.

Westfield runs 280 suckler cows and 40 in-calf heifers, mostly Simmental Saler crosses, along with 460 North Country Cheviot hill ewes.

Mr MacKenzie believes that, as a fairly typical Caithness farm, any lessons learned from its involvement in the monitor programme can be readily applied elsewhere.

One change in its operation this year will be to stop growing cereal crops and, for the first time, to buy in all feed supplies.

“We hope to benefit from buying in feed as opposed to growing our own cereals – this will also allow us to free up more land for grazing.

“We’ll be closely monitoring the change and people will be able to have a view on whether it has made sense,” added Mr MacKenzie.

Westfield has been in Mr MacKenzie’s family for three generations, starting with his grandfather, Magnus, almost a century ago and carried on by his father, Henry.

The 223 hectare holding has in recent years undergone a number of improvements, including a major upgrading of the steading, and the introduction of a new slurry system.

Gary Elder 30, who is a partner in the farm business, is similarly looking forward to taking part in the scheme.

He said: “It is a bit daunting in that everyone will be analysing what we’re doing. But we hope people will see this as a monitor farm for everybody – not just for us.

“It’s hopefully going to be a learning curve for everyone and all involved with the project can benefit.”

Derek Hanton and Iona Cameron of SAC have been appointed by QMS to facilitate the monitor farm.

Mr Hanton said the enthusiasm of John and Gary to get involved in the project shines through and will play a major role in its success.

And Peter Beattie, Technical Projects Manager with Quality Meat Scotland, pointed out the monitor farm initiative is proving extremely valuable in bringing practical benefits not just to the host farm but to the wider agricultural community.

“The Caithness and Sutherland monitor farm has got off to a great start and it is now important to keep up the momentum which has been generated,” said Mr Beattie.

Iona Cameron said the informal interactive session and discussion which followed the farm visit generated some excellent feedback.  “We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the farm business and what we’re looking to achieve over the next three years,” she said.

Among the key aims identified at the first meeting are improvement of the management of grassland and tightening up the calving period.

Another more radical objective is to review whether Westfield could finish some of its cattle, which currently all go to the store market.

The facilitators will now draw up an action plan, provide input from specialists and hold regular meetings, in pursuit of the objectives.

The monitor farm is also the first in Scotland to be backed by sponsorship from local businesses, in addition to funding from Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Government.

Future on-farm meetings are scheduled for the following dates: May 19, July 14, September 15, November 17 and December 22.  Further information is available by visiting www.monitorfarms.co.uk

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