Borders Family Highlight Benefits of Monitor Farm Experience
As well as a series of farm management improvements, some of the biggest changes made by a Borders family in their role as monitor farmers, have emerged from a personality profiling exercise.
This, coupled with some very honest and open future planning discussions, has, according to the Mitchell family, made them a stronger and more focused team, working together to drive the business forward.
Stuart Mitchell and his parents Robert and Lesley run Whitriggs Farm near Denholm, which is entering its third year as the Borders Monitor Farm.
It is one of nine monitor farms that have been established around Scotland in a joint initiative by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds. The aim of the programme, which is funded by Scottish Government, is to help improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Scottish farm businesses.
One of the most significant drivers for positive change is that Robert, Lesley and their two sons, Stuart (26) and Alistair (24), have openly discussed how they plan to hand over the running of the farm business.
Both Stuart and Alistair got married last year which has changed the family dynamics and made succession planning even more vital. One outcome of the family discussions on succession is that Stuart is now leading on the day-to-day decision making.
That is not to say that Robert or Lesley have retired and Alistair, who works in a local veterinary laboratory, will continue to help out at busy times. Robert Mitchell believes the clarity on the future has made their already strong team even stronger.
He said: “It is good that Stuart is now in charge of running the business. Lesley and I are of an age where we possibly do not have the same urge to move forward so fast, but we are right behind him in all that he does and help him every way we can.”
One of the most interesting parts of the monitor farm programme for the Mitchells has been analysing their individual personalities. This showed Stuart and Robert Mitchell have very similar attitudes to decision making, investment, risk and several key aspects affecting the business.
Lesley Mitchell said: “I am the one who steadies the ship. I am less of a risk taker but together we make a strong team. We discuss everything openly and come to joint decisions for the benefit of the business.”
Arguably, it is personal development which has been the biggest gain from being part of the monitor farm programme for the Mitchell family. The input from specialists, support of the management group and the benchmarking undertaken by the Mitchells has also been vital to some of the decisions the family has made.
Whitriggs covers 442 hectares and although the farm is all LFA and runs from 500 feet to 1,400 feet, it is nearly all ploughable. At the start of the monitor farm process the family ran 140 suckler cows and 1,000 Lleyn ewes on the unit. They also grew around 40 hectares of winter wheat and oats.
The family had to make the difficult decision to sell their sheep last year due to Maedi Visna (MV) so from the start of 2019 the farm enterprises consist of 170 cows, 200 red deer and just over 60 hectares of cereals.
The plan now is to increase cow numbers to 200 by retaining the best of their own heifers for breeding.
Stuart Mitchell believes that one of the biggest business achievements as a result of the monitor farm programme has been through the changes to the management of the cattle enterprise. The spring-calving herd is Beef Shorthorn cross and Aberdeen-Angus cross and both breeds of bull are used, along with a Simmental.
In spring 2018 the family achieved their first six-week calving which Mr Mitchell said made the management of the cattle, both at calving and throughout the year, so much easier. They did this by synchronising all the cows which calved out-with the six-week period and inseminating them with ‘’native plus’’ semen. They were synchronised and AI’d to calve in the first week of the six-week period so that if they did not get in-calf, then they could still run with the bull and calve in the fifth week.
The family also now use AI on the heifers and calve them at two years old instead of three, and the other significant change is that they have sold calves store instead of finishing them.
Stuart Mitchell said: “It is good to be flexible. We have the option now to sell calves store in February and March but, depending on the price and how much grass we have, we can turn them out and sell them store later in the year, or we can finish them, but at 14 to 15 months and not 18 to 22 months as before.”
As the family approach the end of their time as monitor farmers, they are keen to establish a legacy to the programme in the area and hold a few follow-up meetings in years to come to update the group on the long-term progression of the changes made from the programme.
The Mitchell family are convinced that their farm is in a better place now than when it started the monitor farm programme and that the business will continue to move in the right direction.