FURTHER details of how the single farm payment will operate have now been released. And Scotland’s farm minister has announced that SFP entitlements can be consolidated, in certain circumstances.

If the Smith brothers lost land because of changes to their tenancy agreement or by not renewing seasonal lets by May 15, 2005, then they could still get their full SFP entitlement, based on the area they farmed in the 2000-2002 reference period, for farming less land.

Their original entitlement would be surrendered to the national reserve in exchange for fewer, higher value entitlements to the same overall worth.

For the past few years the brothers have rented an additional 309ha (764 acres) of heather hill land. Sheep are grazed on the hill but the land was rented mainly to secure extensification subsidy. That, coupled with the seasonal grass lets they take on lower ground, offered the brothers the chance to cut the leases and consolidate their SFP on fewer acres, closer to home.

“But we have no intention of doing that,” says Colin. “We have decided that we will carry on as we have been for at least a year. There will be no rash decisions here; we will wait and see what the market does before deciding if change is needed.”

There are signs, though, that some are making big changes to their systems, Graeme says. “I was at Dingwall mart last week and there were quite a few of the big estates putting a lot of breeding sheep through the ring. Most folk already have all their breeding ewes settled for tupping by this time of year, so it looks like these estates are dispersing a lot of their sheep.

“They, like everyone else, have kept sheep numbers up because of the subsidy. Now they don”t have to. They can keep the land in good heart with a lot fewer sheep than they had to keep before, and it looks like some have decided to cut numbers already,” he says.

The brothers recently received their final Sheep Annual Premium payment, along with 60% advance of their Beef Special Premium Scheme subsidy.

“BSPS payments will dribble through from now until June,” says Colin. “But after that there will be nothing until we get the first SFP, which might not come until early 2006.”

The brothers still believe it is wrong for the SFP to be paid out just once a year. “There will be so many people who are flush for a week and broke for the other 51,” Colin maintains.

“We are all subsidy junkies at the moment and next year is going to be a real shock,” adds Graeme. Ideally, they would like the SFP divided and paid out quarterly, or twice a year at the very least.

While at Dingwall, where he had gone “just for a look”, Graeme bought another 170 feeding ewes at 14.50/head average. “It was an expensive look right enough, but I”m pleased with them,” he says. Over the past few weeks he has also been buying at Huntly and Kingussie marts. “So we have a total of 480 feeding ewes to fatten off the grass in the next couple of months. They are a mixture of Blackface and Cheviot ewes, all broken-mouthed. The enterprise did well last year when we bought sheep for an average of 17/head, so I”m quietly confident,” he says.

After a slow growing season, this year”s lamb crop at Towiemore is finishing well on forage rape and turnips. And, with the price looking as if it will stay at 235p-240p/kg through to Christmas, the 700 lambs left to sell should return a reasonable profit.

The new feed mixer wagon is working well, although its arrival means that a new tractor is now on the shopping list. “At the moment we have just one tractor. So when it’s powering the mixer wagon it means we have no tractor to get on with other things,” says Graeme.

Dry cows are being fed a straw/silage diet from the mixer wagon. “And it has been a big success because there was a lot of wet, sour silage that cows would not normally have eaten. Yet, when it’s well mixed with the straw, they snap it up,” says Graeme.

A diet based on silage, bruised barley, wholecrop barley, minerals and protein, has been formulated to give a target growth rate of 1.25-1.5kg/day for the calves. “If we can achieve that, we will be very happy,” Colin says.

The brothers have fallen foul, once again, of the farm assurance inspector. “This time we got slapped on the wrist for failing to put details in the medicine book about when we’d wormed the dogs,” says Graeme. “I worm them twice a year, but didn’t realise I had to record it. So we got a letter from the assurance folk, and I guess we won’t get this year’s farm assurance certificate until I write back assuring them that I’ve done it all properly.

“The only thing is, I’m not sure if I have to write in that the dogs were wormed, or if I have to re-worm them before I put in the details. That hasn’t been made clear. Maybe I should write and ask,” he says, adding that the he’s not quite sure what difference the dogs’ details being recorded makes to anyone buying quality assured sheep and cattle from Towiemore.