More than 90 people attended the Lothians Monitor Farm launch meeting on Thursday 9 February. It is one of nine new Monitor Farms being established in Scotland as part of a joint initiative by QMS and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds with funding from the Scottish Government.
The Lothians Monitor Farm is hosted by two farms: Prestonhall and Saughland, near Pathhead.
The farms used to be run as one mixed unit and although they are now separate businesses, with Prestonhall focussing on arable and Saughland on livestock, they still work together sharing resources across the arable and livestock enterprises.
Gavin Dick, AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Knowledge Exchange Manager, said: “This arrangement will give the Monitor Farm project the opportunity to develop a collaborative structure with which farmers can evaluate the benefits of working together with neighbours in an effort to drive down costs and adopt best practice.”
The meeting began with an introduction to the arable enterprises at Prestonhall, managed by Bill Gray.
Bill said: “I wanted to be involved because there are many challenges and uncertainties ahead. I wanted to take a fresh look at the business and benefit from the knowledge within the group. With the Monitor Farm we’ve got the opportunity to have a structured approach to business improvement. I want to know how well we are doing now and what we can do better.”
From the arable side, Bill and his team are interested in looking at:
- Re-evaluating the arable enterprise, including machinery, soil, straw, companion cropping in OSR and cover crops;
- Grain handling and storage: to reduce exposure to the grain market, and also to look at how storage could be improved, updated or renewed;
- Collaboration with Saughland: does it need more structure? Could grass at Prestonhall be utilised by Saughland? More sharing of resources;
- Succession planning: mentoring young people and training the next generation of land managers.
At Prestonhall, Bill can only store a third of his tonnage.
“I’d like to not be at the mercy of the harvest market,” he said. “It would be ideal to be able to dry and store everything we produce but that may not be possible.”
A further problem with the current grain handling area is that the storage was built to accommodate smaller machinery and less tonnage. The current building is not really fit for purpose, so Bill wants to provide a more efficient drying and handling system.
Storage and handling also limits Bill’s cropping options, as he doesn’t have the facilities to handle additional crops such as peas and beans.
Saughland, where Peter Eccles runs the livestock enterprise, is situated a few miles away and is within easy travel distance to Prestonhall.
Peter said: “I want us to be the best we can be. We aim to build a sustainable business model we can be proud of. Enjoyment is a big factor of what we do too. I’m excited about the future, and feel confident we can overcome the challenges we face. The Monitor Farm process will help us all to find new ways to make our businesses succeed.”
One of Peter’s main aims for this year is to tag all lambs at marking with electronic identification (EID) and weigh them regularly to calculate and monitor growth rates and worm strategically based on their performance.
Improving shelter around the farm is another. "One of my fears is what the weather can bring at lambing time. At the end of April last year a 4-5 hour spell of high winds and heavy snow cost us 30 lambs,” Peter said.
Through the Monitor Farm programme, Peter hopes to look at whether he can sell stores or finishing, as he is now lambing later than the farm used to do. He also plans to investigate finishing lambs at Prestonhall.
One farmer who attended the meeting from South West Scotland and said: “It was the collaboration element of the Monitor Farm that interested me. I want to bring livestock into my own farm.”
Strengths and weaknesses
At the end of the meeting the group of farmers did a quick strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats assessment of the two farms. One of the key strengths that the group identified was the opportunity to develop business models around the two units and their managers working together to future proof their businesses. The group also felt that a strength of both farms was the people involved and the opportunity to use the project to mentor both them and the wider Community Group.
Both farms have ideas they would like to implement, but are looking to find the measurable benefits which they can use to make informed decisions, as well as making use of the skills and experience within the Monitor Farm community.
One of the project facilitators, Stephen Young, SAOS, said: “The owners, managers and staff are all open and forward thinking, and have a hunger to drive the businesses forward in what are going to be challenging times.
“The Monitor Farm project is all about sharing knowledge. The people who know about farming in the Lothians are these people in the group. We are going to have a fantastic three years learning from each other.”
Those interested in being involved in the project should Colin MacPhail, one of the project facilitators, on 07747 046 461 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Scottish Monitor Farms programme is funded by £1.25million secured from the Scottish Government and European Union’s Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund.