Posted: February 7, 2020

Sutherland Monitor Farm Highlights Benefits of Changes

As the three year Monitor Farm programme at Clynelish Farm near Brora in Sutherland comes to an end, it is time for farmers Jason and Victoria Ballantyne to look back at what they have learned and also to look forward to where they want to take their business in the future.

The Sutherland monitor farm 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.

The Ballantynes believe that, as a result of knowledge gained through the Monitor Farm experience, their farming business is in a much better position now than when they started. “We have learned a lot about our costs of production through benchmarking and feel we really have our heads round the key profit driver of increasing the kilograms of liveweight produced per hectare,” said Mrs Ballantyne.

“The expertise we have been able to tap into has given us the confidence to go ahead and try new things,” she added.

This change in mindset has not only had a positive impact on the host farm, but also the wider farming and rural community, and at the final meeting three local farmers shared their journey with the audience.

Caithness crofter, Graeme Bethune, said that at first, he had been anxious about attending the meetings but over the three years he felt confident enough to introduce rotational grazing on his own croft which has enabled him to increase his stock numbers by twenty five percent . Mr Bethune also changed his mind-set and diversified his business to create a yarn business from his sheep called Caithness Yarns.

The 125 hectare Clynelish Farm is rented from Diageo, who own the neighbouring Clynelish Distillery. The couple farm in partnership with Jason’s dad Murdo and make use of other local seasonal grazing when available. They also contract farm 230 North Country Cheviot ewes at a sheep stock club two miles away which graze on 34 hectares of in-bye and hill.

The family have 670 ewes of their own and 80 native cross suckler cows and both enterprises operate on low cost forage systems.

Mr Ballantyne said: “One of the trials we undertook in 2019 through the Monitor Farm programme was monitoring the daily liveweight gains of our lambs.

“We used innovative weighing equipment to weigh lambs every week and monitor their daily liveweight gains. This has shown us that rotational grazing is effective as lambs were growing up to 400g per day and averaging around 250g per day up until the end of October.

“Using the weighing data to inform management decisions will be a big driver for the business going forward,” added Mrs Ballantyne.

As part of the Monitor Farm Programme, an Integrated Land Management Plan was undertaken by local facilitators Willie Budge and Cat McGregor from SAC Consulting Thurso. This identified early on that the business had an issue with fertility in their suckler cows and through consultation between their local Vet and SAC Consulting, the Ballantynes started a vaccination programme.

This has resulted in a decrease in their variable costs per cow to £273, 20 per cent lower than the QMS benchmark for the top third of producers, and increase their gross margin per cow to £520, again, sitting above the benchmark for the top third of producers from the QMS 2019 Enterprise Costings.

A key aim of the Monitor Farm programme is to look at how farming businesses can minimise their environmental impact.

A carbon audit undertaken at the start of the programme identified several ways the Ballantynes could improve their efficiency of production. One area the Ballantynes are especially excited about is moving to grass leys with a greater diversity by reseeding old pastures with herbal mixtures.

The Ballantynes are very appreciative of the help they have had during the three years of the Monitor Farm programme from both QMS and the Sutherland Monitor Farm facilitators from SAC Consulting Thurso.

Mrs Ballantyne explains: “Being a Monitor Farm has pushed us to do things we probably would not have done otherwise and has moved our business forward 10 years in just three. It has been fantastic to focus on some of the solutions that are available to us as farmers, and we feel that the programme has left a positive legacy for the farming and crofting community of Sutherland as a result.”

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