Business benefits from Monitor Farms project

A year ago, James and John Scott joined Scotland’s Monitor Farms project. They reflect on farming in the spotlight and how it has affected their business. Carol McLaren reports

Twelve months since the Scotts committed to a three-year stint as the furthest north of Scotland’s seven monitor farms, the family is convinced it has been a positive move for Fearn Farm and the wider agricultural community in the area.

The Scotts – father James and son John – now look forward to welcoming up to 65 farmers, bankers, accountants, vets and feed reps on regular visits to Fearn Farm – albeit with a little nervousness – but the first meeting proved a real eye-opener.

“We thought we were pretty good at what we did, but it quickly became obvious that we were going to have to swallow our pride and take what was mostly very constructive criticism. Some of the questions had us wondering about things we’d been doing for years – it did leave us in shock!” says John.

Funding

The Monitor Farms project is largely funded by Quality Meat Scotland, and the community group visits each farm six times a year. Smaller, specialist sub-groups focus on individual enterprises like cattle, sheep, cereals and grassland.

“Having spoken to farmers in New Zealand, we thought the Monitor Farm concept was exciting – based on openness and like-minded people getting together to look at how they could improve their businesses,” says John.

Scottish Agricultural College consultant Derek Hanton oversees Fearn’s involvement in the project and James and John believe his role is crucial, both in data collection and processing and chairing the meetings.

“The group has settled really well with so many great characters now willing to talk about their own experiences,” says Mr Hanton.

Time well spent

With the sub-group meetings and a “post mortem” catch-up after each community group visit, the time required is considerable. But James maintains it is time very well spent.

“The work we are putting into analysing accounts and enterprise costs is a time commitment we gladly make and should be making anyway. The benefits far outweigh the costs,” says James.

Generating the most debate in the past year was the Scotts’ choice of location and design for a new £130,000 cattle shed, now under construction. This discussion helped the Scotts reallocate the proposed site and alter the design, opting for a larger version featuring a lean-to and centre feed pass.

Labour costs were also examined. “One camp could see that we wanted some quality of life, while the other camp was looking strictly at the figures and felt we should simplify what we were doing and use only family labour,” says John.

Decision

And two major changes to the beef system were triggered by a community group decision.

“Normally, our spring-born heifers would be finished around Christmas but this year we looked at them at a Monitor Farm meeting in mid-July and decided to start feeding them outside. They were then housed in mid-September, worked up to ad-lib feed and finished and away by the end of October,” he says.

The Scotts no longer have autumn calvers, prompted by a near-unanimous decision at the first meeting and sealed after a beef sub-group discussion.

The sheep sub-group advised increasing numbers as the group felt the commercial flock’s breeding had become too continental, contributing to a fall in lambing percentage.

Biosecurity

This autumn’s decision to drill winter wheat was also debated long and hard by the group. “We have tended to grow more spring barley as, with no drying facilities, we are not really set up for winter wheat. But we have gone ahead with 9ha (23 acres) of Alchemy wheat and will see how the gross margin turns out,” says James.

Meetings usually start inside at around 11am with a general update on management and sub-group reports, before heading out onto the farm. Biosecurity is an absolute priority – footwear and clothing must be clean and 30 pairs of wellies are made available for visitors, who must also disinfect footwear on arrival.

“There’s no way of hiding anything but in many cases there are no definite rights or wrongs. But one thing we find now is that more people are tending to put themselves into our shoes and make suggestions in line with our business objectives,” says John.

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