Christmas did not bring the present Colin and Graeme Smith were hoping for.

Towiemore is still without its single farm payment cheque, while most other Scottish farmers are deciding how to spend theirs.

“So we’re still poor men,” mourns Colin. “But I am hopeful this can be resolved by the end of the month.”

Payment day came and went, so, getting worried, Colin contacted his local Scottish Executive office in Elgin.

“The chap who came out in late summer satellite-mapped our fields, and it turns out there was a slight discrepancy with the maps we submitted.

“My first thought was: Oh no, we’ve over-claimed, and there will be penalties, but in fact we under-claimed by just 0.8ha.

It turns out the computer is that sensitive; anything more than 0.01ha out and it will reject the claim.”

But though that may be a relief for the brothers, the executive has not yet given them any indication when they might be paid, and what the initial payment will represent.

“Still nobody can tell me the total payment.

We are getting 75% of something, but we are still not sure what.”

And this is reflected in conversations with other farmers, some of whom were expecting to receive more, some less, says Colin.

The late payment means the absence of Sheep Annual Premium, beef scheme payments and IACS cheques is becoming more and more apparent.

And while lamb and beef marketing continues, consistently poor returns are failing to lift Graeme’s spirits.

He has just sent 80 store lambs to Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre, where they made 36.50 a head.

“On reflection, I could probably have got that for them back in October or November, so I have kept them for nothing.

The sheep trade just hasn’t moved.”

And it is not just the vendor that suffers at this sort of price.

“These lambs are about six weeks away from being finished.

If prices do not improve, the buyer will lose out.

“A lot of farmers bought store lambs in September at 37-38 a head.

But after deductions, MLC levies and belly-clipping, a 40kg prime lamb only leaves about 40 in your hand.”

That said, the seasonal lamb kill was up on the year, and that, in turn, was above 2004 figures, says Graeme.

“So some folk still think there could be a scarcity of hoggets round here come the spring.”

Meanwhile, the weather pundits who were confidently predicting a hard winter for the British Isles have so far only been proved right in East Anglia and the south east.

Towiemore is enjoying a mild one, with some in-calf heifers still outside and stock are looking well on their winter rations.

This year the brothers have chosen not to vaccinate against calf pneumonia, a cost saving of 8 a head, and cases have been rare.

“It is a big saving this year, but it is probably due more to luck than management.

Reducing barley in the diet seems to have caused less sweating and stress and less humidity has also helped.”

The milder-than-expected temp-eratures have also meant the Mule ewes are still living off grass alone, with no supplementary feed, and have been with the tups for the last couple of weeks.

“So scanning will not be far away now,” says Graeme.

And the brothers are hoping the scans will show fewer triplets than last year.

“We had too many ewes with triplets last year, and we gave them a drench before tupping and a few mineral licks out in the fields.

This year they have only had a pre-tupping bucket drench.”

Graeme hopes the Cheviots are carrying a few lambs as well.

They have come straight off the hill and on to grass with no dietary supplements.

“So it will be interesting to compare the two flocks.”

The Cheviots have been with the tups for about five weeks, so if Graeme and Colin have got their dates right, they will start lambing from 1 May.

“And they need to be done by the Scotsheep event on 7 June, or I won’t get the chance for a day out.

It’s a good opportunity to mark the end of lambing and see how everyone else has got on.

And there just might be a beer tent and the chance for a few drams.”

ian.ashbridge@rbi.co.uk