9th January 2015

Orkney Farm’s Margins Boosted by Monitor Farm Experience

The first NFU Scotland Orkney monitor farm project has been a huge success with well-attended meetings and host farmer, Steven Sandison reporting big improvements to his knowledge and, more importantly, to his margins.

The final meeting was held at Harray parish hall near Millburn Farm on Orkney mainland where Mr Sandison farms with his wife, Lorraine. Nearly 50 farmers attended and signed off the three year project on a very positive note. 

Johnny Mackey, Head of Industry development at Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), who attended the meeting said he believes there was a clear signal from Orkney farmers that they would like another monitor farm on the islands.

Millburn extends to 230acres while a further 100 acres is taken on a seasonal let basis. The farm is mostly down to permanent and temporary grass with about 20 acres of rough grazing and 30 acres of barley, some of which is kept for feeding cows, with the majority is sold.

Stocking consists of 100 Simmental cross and Salers cross cows with Salers, Simmental and Charolais bulls all being used.

Mr Sandison said that at first facilitator George Baikie of SAC Consulting, a division of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), was doubtful of achieving significant results on the farm because Mr Sandison's system was very simple revolving round the single cattle enterprise and selling calves at weaning. 

Mr Baikie said: "Steven was already technically very proficient, meeting many of the published benchmarks for the livestock but his enthusiasm and dedication to the project were a significant asset."

Mr Sandison said: "At the final meeting we agreed it had been a worthwhile venture and we finished with a good message focussing on at least 12 changes I have been through since becoming a monitor farm."

These changes have resulted in Mr Sandison producing at least ten more tonnes of liveweight than previously, worth an estimated £20,000. He said, "I have learned such a lot and many small changes to the system have added up to a big change in profit."

One of the key health issues which was identified at Millburn in the early stages was a cobalt deficiency in the cattle due to low levels of the mineral in the soil. He now boluses the cattle and has seen health benefits which include better liveweight gains.

Mr Sandison has also cut back on fertiliser on the barley crop but increased it on the silage ground. He explained: "I wanted to extend the grazing season earlier in the year, so I discovered that 2cwt/acre of fertiliser was the optimum amount on the grass which meant I could put the cows out in May and graze the silage ground for a month before a single cut of silage in July.

"The inclusion of white clover in the grass mix means it comes away again and the aftermath is also grazed. Mr Sandison added, "Clover is good for putting milk on the cows and weight on the calves and since I have managed my grass better and improved herd health, I have not had to creep feed calves at all."

Mr Sandison reflected on a creep feeding trial which he did near the beginning of the three year programme, when he was trying to stop calf weights declining. He said: "Creep feeding cost around £44 per calf and they were only 6kg heavier than those which did not have access to the feed. I have gained much more by improving their health and the grass."

Another measure Mr Sandison has taken to improve some of the wetter areas of grassland on the farm is to introduce sheep. He has a grazing agreement with a neighbour and has found sheep have been the answer to a previous weed, particularly ragwort, problem.

Last year, as a result of feedback from the meetings, Mr Sandison decided to sell one of his Charolais bulls and use more Simmental breeding. This has given him more heifers calves to choose from as replacements and the remainder are in demand for breeding heifers, which has increased the total price per kg gained for the weaned calves.

However the biggest change has been in the total kilos of cattle liveweight produced on the farm. At the start of the programme 29 tonnes were produced from 110 cows; last year, with cows reduced to 100 there were 36 tonnes of liveweight sold and so far in 2014, 39 tonnes have been sold with around another four tonnes still to go.

Mr Sandison said: "I am not getting carried away by the figures as this was the best spring we have had for many years, however I believe the changes we have made to the health and management of the cattle, combined with a slightly lower stocking rate, has led to bigger heifers producing bigger calves which grow on well."

He admitted that the whole process has made him a lot more interested in the farm accounts. The facilitator worked out the total kilos of liveweight sold and set that against the variable costs and Mr Sandison said: "At first it was just a lot of numbers but the longer you do it the easier it gets and the more sense the figures make."

It is especially important to Mr Sandison and his wife Lorraine that they make prudent decisions on the farm as they have only been farming in their own right since 2003 and do not have their full quota of Single Farm Payment. For them maximising output from the farm is critical to its sustainability and their livelihood.

One of the other changes which has been successful is switching the barley variety from Golden Promise to Propino and reducing the applied fertiliser from 3cwt to 2cwt per acre. Sprays are also kept to a minimum. This has led to a similar average yield as before of two tonnes per acre, but inputs are lower and therefore margins are higher. Around 50 tonnes is sold each year with just 10 tonnes retained for feeding the cows after calving in the spring.

Overall soil fertility has been improved by increasing the pH through the application of around 400 tonnes of shell sand over the last three years.

Mr Sandison is extremely positive about his experiences as a monitor farmer. He did not expect the result of taking part in the programme to be so productive and he is hopeful that he will be able to host a couple of open days over the next year where all those who had an input into the project at Millburn will be able to follow the ongoing developments.

Local NFU Scotland Secretary Kenny Slater, a member of the management group, said: “While Stephen and Lorraine clearly enjoyed and benefitted from the monitor farm experience, its impact went much wider.

“The level of engagement generated by the project was fantastic with more than 40 farmers regularly attending the monitor farm meetings.  They benefitted from sharing ideas with other farmers and learning about techniques and technology that could benefit their own businesses. Given that there are fewer opportunities these days for farmers to get off their farms, the social interaction element of the project shouldn’t be underestimated.

“The lessons learned from Orkney’s first monitor farm give us something to build on and there is an appetite amongst those who attended for a follow-up monitor farm project on Orkney.”

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