1st July 2014

Mull Farmer Motivated and Inspired By Monitor Farm Experience

The final Isle of Mull monitor farm meeting was attended by more than 50 farmers and associates of the agricultural industry, including a number from the mainland. The meeting was hosted by monitor farmer Iain MacKay who rents Torloisk, on the island’s north west coast.

Torloisk was one the most westerly of the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) network of monitor farms located throughout Scotland.

At the first Mull monitor farm meeting, in March 2011, the community group assessed the challenges presented by the rugged 7,116 acres (3,075 hectares) of Torloisk. Just 2.5% of the total land area, (173 acres) is inbye, with the remainder a mixture of difficult land types, including steep cliffs, high moorland and rocky outcrops.

Back then, Mr MacKay ran a fold of 50 pedigree Highland cows and 850 ewes - 400 Scottish Blackface, 400 Cheviot cross Blackface and 50 stud Cheviots.

From the outset, he explained that he wanted to ultimately lift Torloisk’s stock-carrying capacity from 0.07 livestock units per hectare to 0.09, representing 350 additional ewes.

At the final meeting, Mr MacKay, along with the two monitor farm facilitators – Niall Campbell and Donald MacKinnon, both of SAC Consulting in Oban - summarised the progress achieved over the three year monitor farm term.

Three years is a short time in livestock farming, yet with the support and encouragement of the community group, strong foundations have been laid. Mr MacKay has taken numerous positive steps towards achieving a higher, sustainable stocking rate, while also identifying and creating opportunities to add value to his livestock enterprises.

Mr MacKay has improved grassland, concentrating on areas protected by deer fencing. In 2011, a field of old established grass had been over-sown after rigorous, diagonal harrowing. Mr MacKay told the group: “In 2013 this piece of land carried three times more stock than it could before it was over-sown.”

Where rocks permit ploughing, a number of fields had been sown with forage rape and stubble turnips, prior to being re-seeded with a grass/clover mix. A further forage brassica crop was successfully grown on land too rocky for ploughing, which had been harrowed and rotovated to create a seed bed.

Lying surface water in two fields has been reduced by soil aeration. “The young and rejuvenated grass grows earlier in the year and lasts longer, giving around six additional weeks of grass growth over the shoulder grazing months,” explained Mr MacKay. “The stock also thrive better and grow more quickly on these areas.”

In 2012, within an SRDP Rural Priorities agri environment scheme, 318 acres of bracken were helicopter sprayed.

An additional 30 acres of hill park outwith an SRDP scheme, were also sprayed, and divided into six trial plots to establish which follow up treatments after spraying, are most successful.

These bracken control trial plots were assessed at the final monitor farm meeting. Early results show that spraying is successful and that harrowing the sprayed bracken a year later, fiercely enough to remove the bracken litter, then applying fertiliser, (20-10-10), achieves the best re-growth of the natural vegetation.

The sheep and cattle enterprises have been closely scrutinised, with positive, income-boosting changes introduced, supported by the improved grazing.

By utilising the forage brassicas, Mr MacKay was able to finish some lambs for sale through the Argyll Hill Lamb Group, a premium-earning, regionally branded marketing scheme. The forage brassicas also meant that cast ewes could be grazed for longer on-farm, resulting in their sale value more than doubling in ten weeks, thanks to their improved condition.

A low hill, commercial flock of 100 ewes, crossed with Cheviot tups has been established. Mr MacKay told the group: “My aim is to develop a productive and ‘easycare’ Cheviot hill flock, by using Cheviot tups with high EBVs (Estimated Breeding Values) for maternal traits, over acclimatised and productive, home-bred ewes. By doing so we should produce easily managed, productive, quality flock replacements.”

Lambing percentage in this low hill flock is approximately 30% better than the flock higher up the hill, where nature throws considerably more challenges.

Mr MacKay’s “Cnoc-na-Sith” pedigree fold of Highlanders achieved Elite Health Status (clear of Johne’s, BVD and IBR), ten years ago. A number of breeding heifers have been exported.

In 2010, all calves were pure Highland. “These weather-proof cattle out-winter, withstanding over 120 inches of rain per annum, and their foraging ability makes them an essential part of the grazing management,” commented Mr MacKay.

However, with a 20 week calving period pre-monitor farm, plus disappointing auction prices for weaned, pure Highland calves, the group spotted the potential for improvements.

Between 2011 and 2014, the calving period has been shortened to 12 weeks, with no reduction in calving percentage. Also two-thirds of the calves are now sired by either a Simmental or Shorthorn bull, with the remainder bred pure for replacement females.

“The cows calve out on the hill, so the tighter calving at the same time as lambing, has been hard on me,” explained Mr MacKay. “However, the benefits of bigger, more valuable cross-bred calves of even size, for sale batching, are obvious. Their health status has helped some of the cross-bred heifers sell for breeding.”

Throughout the three year term of the monitor farm, numerous experts and specialists have spoken at meetings. “This professional advice directly related to my own farm has helped boost my optimism for the future and inspired me to try new things,” Mr MacKay told the group.

“Record keeping has also greatly improved, with financial and livestock records now computerised, so I can analyse the performance of each enterprise individually and make decisions at enterprise level, instead of just looking at figures for the whole farm. I feel I understand my farm a lot better now.”

Mr MacKay added: “The three years of the monitor farm have been three years of motivation. If you want to progress, you need to surround yourself with positive people, and the support and enthusiasm of the facilitators and community group, along with the specialist, technical advice from speakers, has been an addictive spell of progressive thinking.”

The average attendance at the 15 monitor farm meetings was 34, with one of the regular attendees being Mull farmer Lachlan MacLean, Chairman of the NFUS Less Favoured Areas Committee. Mr MacLean shares Mr MacKay’s hopes of future meetings.

“The monitor farm meetings have been great!” he said. “The discussions have made us think. The information shared amongst the group has focussed our minds on the opportunities created by applying constructive principles to our own farming businesses.

“The success of the monitor farm has certainly encouraged us to continue a similar venture on Mull, where we can meet up and discuss some of the topical farming issues, when a collection of views and opinions will be beneficial.”

For more information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, visit www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms

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