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Clear Vision for the Future is Key to Success

Perthshire farmer John Ritchie believes that it is key for farmers to recognise the issues they may face, both now and in the future. Some issues will affect everyone, some are unique to the farm but all must be understood before action can be taken.

Mr Ritchie will be one of the speakers at Quality Meat Scotland's (QMS) "Rising to the Challenges" conference next week at Airth Castle near Falkirk. More than 140 farmers are registered to attend the free event which will consider the current challenges that beef and sheep farmers face, including market volatility and reduced support payments.

Speakers at the event will also explore ways that producers can offset the impact of these challenges including the potential to further improve efficiency.

Mr Ritchie, who farms beef cattle and sheep at Montalt near Dunning in Perthshire, is at pains to point out that he does not know it all and his own business development is still very much a “work-in-progress” but he constantly reviews his business and makes changes to try to become more efficient.

"I do not want to preach to anyone, but I can see the challenges ahead. We have taken a £10,000 hit on subsidy payment this year so my goal is to have functional, low maintenance livestock which perform well on this type of land,” he said.

"One of the key issues for me and my farm is that my father will retire in a few years. The cost of labour will not reduce so I have to prepare now to have everything in place to allow me to farm on my own."

Mr Ritchie farms 650 acres in partnership with his dad George and mum Karen, with his wife Alix helping out. Half of the land is owned by the family and half is held on a ten-year short duration tenancy. The majority of the tenanted land is rough grazing, however over three generations of Ritchie family stewardship, nearly all of Montalt is improved grass.

Mr Ritchie feels very strongly that good grass is the key to efficiency, and despite the farm being situated between 900 and 1000 feet above sea level on shallow, rock-based soil, he continues to rotate the grass every six years with a forage crop to keep it fresh. He soil tests and applies lime regularly as well as keeping up with drainage and fencing.

He said: "I believe you have to look at the potential of your own farm and ask yourself if every acre is producing to its potential before renting grass elsewhere."

The farm carries 650 ewes and 75 suckler cows and the goal is to boost ewe numbers to 750 by increasing the dry matter produced from forage. He said: "I think sometimes farmers find it hard to understand dry matter and how much is needed on a farm to keep stock. We have a short grazing season up here but we extend it with the use of forage crops such as swedes.  Forty-five tonnes fresh weight of swedes yields four tonnes of dry matter which can be used over the winter months."

A member of the Perthshire Grazing group run by QMS, and also a member of West Fife and Kinross Business Improvement Group, Mr Ritchie is open to new ideas and he finds the open sharing of information and benchmarking which comes from these meetings, invaluable.

He said: "The biggest asset to the business is the farmer himself and I believe the more knowledge and skills he can apply to improve the business, the better."

Mr Ritchie is in the process of changing his ewe breeding flock to find a low maintenance, hardy ewe which is still prolific, but will allow him to carry more stock and therefore finish more lambs per year. His original ewes were Scotch Mules but he said they are hungry sheep and almost too prolific for the area so he kept some of the Texel cross Mules. However, they are verging on 80kg, which he feels is too big, so this year for the first time he has lambed some Texel cross Blackface. His five year average scan is 191 per cent, with 165 per cent lambs sold.

He has also pre-booked some New Zealand Texel rams, which are performance recorded, with the aim of selecting and breeding his own replacements. All his lambs are finished and sold at an average 19.5kg deadweight to Scotbeef with 70% sold off grass by the end of November and the rest finished on swedes by mid-February.

At the moment about one-third of his lambs are E and U grades but Mr Ritchie said: "The minimum supermarket requirement is an R grade, so I would rather forfeit the small premium I get for Es and Us for a flock of ewes which require less assistance and rear more lambs."

Mr Ritchie would like to achieve with his sheep what he has with the cattle which he started improving ten years ago. He changed from Simmental cross cows to Salers and increased his percentage of calves reared from 85% to 95% with the added bonus of an "insatiable demand" for Saler heifers.

He always has an eye on costs and for that reason he is phasing out the autumn calving herd in favour of spring calving cows which suits his system better and are more cost effective.

Realising the challenges to be faced is the first step but Mr Ritchie knows he is on the road to changing his farm and has a clear vision of where he would like to be in the future.