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Planning for Profit Bute Case Study Farm Showcases Efficiency Improvements

The extra costs created by farming on an island means efficiency is even more important than it is on the mainland, and one couple who have dramatically improved productivity on their farm on the Isle of Bute is Brian and Janet Hill.

The 1600 acre Plan Farm is situated at Kingarth, the southernmost tip of Bute and enjoys 8km of coastline with spectacular views across the Sound of Bute to Arran.

A video featuring Janet Hill talking about the changes they have successfully introduced to Plan Farm is being launched today (January 30th 2014) and is available to view by clicking here. The video will also be screened at the next QMS Planning for Profit roadshow which takes place at The Thistle Hotel, Inverness on 12th February.

Planning for Profit is an initiative aimed at assisting farmers to ensure their businesses are well-placed to operate profitably in the face of reduced support payments. It is supported by the Scottish Government’s Skills Development Scheme, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and NFU Scotland and delivered by SAOS, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and consultant, Peter Cook.

The Hills moved to the island from Somerset in 1994 and since then have completely transformed the livestock enterprises at “The Plan” as it is known. One of the main changes has been reducing ewe numbers from over 1000 to 650 but rearing the same number of lambs. They did this by introducing Lleyn ewes and improving the lambing percentage from 115% to between 185 and 190%.

“The hill here is quite kind so we aimed for better productivity and chose the Lleyn breed for its prolificacy and maternal traits. We were also keen to keep the flock closed and concentrate on one breed instead of the three-tier system which involves Blackface, Mules and terminal sires,” said Mrs Hill.

The couple started by upgrading from the Blackface but in 2007 also bought in some foundation ewes. Since introducing the Lleyns, the Hills have embraced technology by electronic tagging and carefully analysing the data in order to identify the best ewes which are held in a nucleus flock for breeding replacements. Any lower performing ewes are crossed with a terminal sire and the lambs finished.

The couple also set health targets for problems such as foot rot and bad udders and developed her own grading scale which meant culling or crossing anything that was under-performing.

“Reducing ewe numbers has saved us money and time but one of the biggest benefits has been freeing up more grass so we can finish more of our own lambs. When we started, we only finished about 20% of the home-bred lambs, now we finish 70% of them,” Mrs Hill said.

The terminal breed of choice is the Hampshire Down, an early finishing breed which is capable of fattening off grass. She credits this with the improved finishing weights seen in the flock over the last couple of years. She pays particular attention to EBVs for growth rate and killing out percentage when purchasing rams and has increased the carcase weight of the prime lambs by 2.5kg in two years. She said, “I have not analysed the 2013 figures yet but it looks as though the lambs, which are sold to Scotbeef at Bridge of Allan, will have averaged over 21kg deadweight.”

The next step in Brian and Janet’s continuous efforts to improve productivity and profitability on the farm is to breed their own tups. Janet already has a small Hampshire Down flock to produce terminal sires but her plan is to separate the Lleyn ewes into five families and start retaining some of their own tups for breeding. Careful recording of performance will be critical in selecting the best sires of the future.

She stressed that it is especially important to farm efficiently on Bute because of the extra costs of buying in feed, fertiliser, seed and straw from the mainland and also the increased costs of transport to haul lambs and calves off the island to markets on the mainland. However, her message to other livestock producers, no matter where they farm, is to eliminate non-performers and not stand for any passengers.

The couple have opted for a similar policy with the cattle, choosing the Luing as their foundation breed for foraging ability and hardiness and crossing them with South Devons for their docility and ability to milk, to produce a hardy, viable suckler cow. Some are then crossed with a Simmental bull to produce breeding heifers for sale to the mainland.

From 2006 to 2009 Plan Farm was a QMS monitor farm and Janet said that the experience was a great exercise which really made them think about everything they were doing and helped them become more efficient.

Find out more about Plan Farm at the Planning for Profit Roadshow at The Thistle Hotel, Inverness, on Wednesday 12th February. Booking is essential for these free roadshows and places will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. To book your place contact Kirsty at QMS on 0131 472 4040 or email info@qmscotland.co.uk with your name, address and telephone number.