Next year’s spring barley acreage is set to be one of the highest ever at Fearn Farm as the Scott family tries to further simplify the arable regime and reduce risk.

Their decision not to drill winter barley or wheat means the 2009 spring barley area will be almost 200ha (500 acres), with a small acreage of peas also going in.

“We will probably stick with Optic, but we may try a field of Publican to see how it performs,” says John Scott, who farms with his father, James. “Fertiliser cost and reducing hassle are major factors in our decision, plus agronomically, Optic suits us and the straw is also good to handle.”

The Scotts are quick to point out they were incredibly lucky this harvest and managed to get most of their spring barley cut in a week, escaping the heavy rain which dogged much of Scotland.

The spring barley, all Optic, came off the field at 16-21% moisture and all-bar two fields went for malting.

“For us it was low nitrogen – down as low as 1.47% N with an average yield of 2.8t/acre, averaging £160-170/t.

“We are well aware of exactly how fortunate we have been this year – it has been a very different story elsewhere,” says James.

Two-thirds of the barley, about 1050t, was sold on contract to Bairds Malt through Scotgrain and 210t went to Frontier. A further 200t have now been sold on the spot market. The winter barley averaged about 3t/acre, with the winter wheat about 4.4t/acre.

“We have sold 3000 round bales so far, for more than £6 each, mainly heading north to Caithness with some Hestons sold to Orkney,” says John. “Demand for straw is down this year due to reduced stock numbers in the west coast and north.”

Looking forward, James admits he has very little confidence in growing crops. “When you look at the way the wheat price has fallen it is hard to have any confidence, so we are adopting an approach that is least risk to us.

“At the moment we are waiting to see how contract prices look for spring barley – we have been asking for them, but they are still to be forthcoming,” he says.

Earlier lambing

The Scott’s decision to simplify their arable operation follows a major change to their sheep management system.

The switch to out-wintering their commercial flock will be repeated this year, with the main flock being housed just before lambing, due to start on 19 March.

However, this year the family is opting to lamb some of the commercial flock early, with the aim of producing prime lambs for May/June, rather than June onwards.

“We have decided, as we are lambing our pedigrees early, we will lamb some of the commercial flock early, too,” explains James. “We synchronised 130 cross ewes – mainly older ewes which might need more attention – and put out a ratio of one tup to 10 ewes, rotating the tups every four hours.

“There’s a big swing at the moment towards May lambing and we feel there may be a gap in the market earlier on.”

The rest of the ewes have been on rented hill grazing since weaning this summer and, despite the hill being pretty bare, they are looking well and have just come down for flushing. All the ewes received a Depocil injection.

“We went into the ewes pretty early in July to take out the casts, which worked well, but may have checked the Cheviot lambs,” says John. “We were getting up to £80 for the cast ewes and averaging £45, including Cheviots, which was pretty good, though perhaps some of the older ewes we pulled out could have gone among our early lambers.”

Differing opinions

A decision to castrate the calves this year, rather than keep them entire as in previous years, has prompted some debate about whether it is the right move, but father and son agree to differ.

“I feel Scottish beef should be grass-reared as much as possible and bull beef doesn’t fit with that,” says John. “We also made the decision to switch to castrating our bull calves when barley prices were high, putting serious pressure on the potential margin of intensively-reared bulls, but with feed barley now at £100/t, bulls would be working quite well. We may return to bulls, but we’ll see how the steers perform.”

Some ongoing major expenditure means cash-flow and managing the business overdraft is at the forefront of John Scott’s mind.

He, together with wife, Fiona, and their four children will move into the main farmhouse early next year. In the meantime, some long-overdue renovations are under way there, including double glazing and rewiring.

After 60 years in Fearn Farmhouse, James Scott has just moved into a new house built just a few hundred yards from the farm. The expected wrench of moving away from the home, which has been in the Scott family for 120 years, has not materialised.

“It’s fantastic,” says James. “Janet and I moved four weeks ago and we feel settled in already. It’s very peaceful and it has a great view. In fact, I can see what most of Easter Ross is up to.”