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New Lothians Monitor Farm Announced

Two neighbouring farms which were once part of the same large estate have been selected as the new Lothians Monitor Farm. Prestonhall Farms and Saughland Farm are the seventh of nine new monitor farms being established in Scotland as part of a joint initiative by Quality Meat Scotland and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds.

Although separate businesses, the two farms have maintained close links since the estate was divided into three 20 years ago, and are positive that their partnership will strengthen as they work together as a joint monitor farm.

Prestonhall Farms is an arable enterprise of 660 hectares growing cereals and oilseeds on a five year rotation while nearby Saughland Farm comprises of 320 hectares with 70 hectares of arable land, 1,900 breeding sheep and 55 suckler cows where all progeny is sold finished or retained for breeding.

The project will be hosted jointly by their respective farm managers Bill Gray and Peter Eccles, both of whom see a lot of potential in collaborating more closely over the course of the project. Their situation is unlike any of the other monitor farms, and will create the opportunity to develop the concept of collaboration further, and demonstrate the opportunities for other farmers in working together to spread costs and ensure resources are efficiently utilised.

Prestonhall Farms manager Bill Gray, says: “At the moment we do share some resources, for example contract work on land and occasionally staff, on an ad hoc basis. However, I hope that through this programme we will develop those links further and with more structure.

“I feel very comfortable going into this as a joint project as Peter and I have similar philosophies in terms of what we are trying to do, and I think the farms will benefit from both closer working and the wider monitor farm project.”

Mr Gray has spent over twenty years working at Prestonhall Farms, moving up from Northamptonshire to take on the role of arable manager in 1994. Now farm and estate manager, he has seen the farm change significantly over the course of his tenure.

From introducing minimum till over ten years ago, developing a soil nutrition programme based on GPS soil analysis and yield mapping, to making the difficult decision in 2010 to sell the 40-strong suckler herd and focus solely on arable.

Currently the farm devotes approximately 120 hectares to spring barley, with 160 hectares to winter wheat, 70 hectares winter barley, 70 hectares oilseed rape and 60 hectares oats, along with over 100 hectares of permanent pasture and 78 hectares of woodland.

Always open to new ideas Mr Gray is looking forward to reviewing the farm enterprises once more with fresh eyes, searching for new approaches to crop management, organic matter content and storage and drying facilities for the farm’s grain.

He says: “The monitor farm programme gives you a chance to challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone and put your head above the parapet. I’m looking forward to getting a better handle on how we are currently performing, listening to the ideas of others in the community and making changes to ensure a robust and sustainable business for the future. I believe that this is imperative given the challenges that we face given the current uncertainty.”

Farm manager of neighbouring Saughland Farm, Peter Eccles, is of the same mind. “I applied to become a monitor farmer because I wanted to ensure Saughland is moving in the right direction in creating a financially and environmentally sustainable business for the future. I am focused on analysing our performance to make better informed decisions. Working with Bill will allow us to develop our current collaboration into something more structured, drawing on each other’s expertise and sharing resources efficiently.”

Mr Eccles joined Saughland Farm three years ago, having previously worked with SAC Consulting as an agricultural consultant.

In just a short time Mr Eccles has more than doubled the sheep numbers (from 950 to over 1,900) as he is works to increase farm revenue without increasing fixed costs. The flock has slowly moved from indoor to outdoor lambing and he has been replacing the original Scotch Mule Texel crosses with Romney Aberfield crosses because of the latter’s ability to do more from grass and with less intervention at lambing time. The farm also has 55 suckler cows, mainly Angus, Hereford, and Limousin crosses, which complement the sheep enterprise and are integral to the grazing system.

Mr Eccles hopes the monitor farm programme will help him develop a number of areas on farm. For example; making better use of EID, increase kilos of liveweight produced per hectare and improved marketing of their grass-finished produce. The outdoor lambs are also not without their challenges.

“Next year is the first year all the ewes will lamb outside,” Mr Eccles explains, “and while moving to outdoor has saved us £13 per lamb, we do have to think about how to safeguard our system as we scale it up. We don’t have the use of sheds so wintering a large flock is a challenge. It is questions such as these I hope the monitor farm programme will help answer.”

The new three-year monitor farm programme is being run jointly by Quality Meat Scotland and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds. It is establishing a group of farms to serve as monitor farms to help improve the profitability, productivity and sustainability of producers through practical demonstrations, the sharing of best practice and the discussion of up-to-date issues.

The first meeting of the new Lothians Monitor Farm will be on Thursday 9 February, more details will follow in the New Year. Those interested in being involved in the project should Colin MacPhail, one of the project facilitators, on 07747 046 461 or at colin@macphailconsulting.co.uk.