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Adopting new strategies that have ultimately helped performance has been one of the main benefits of getting involved in the Monitor Farms Programme, according to Chris Cameron.

Over the three-year programme, he has been able to fine-tune flock and herd management and develop existing grassland management strategies. This has enabled cow numbers to be increased by 25%, whilst lamb weaning percentages have risen from 96% to 103%.

Strone Farm near Banavie, is one of nine Monitor Farms established in Scotland as part of a joint initiative by QMS and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds, with funding from the Scottish Government. The aim of the Monitor Farm programme is to help improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Scottish farm businesses.

Chris and parents, Malcolm and Eileen run 370 North Country Cheviot x Lleyns and 150 North Country Cheviot ewes, plus 50 Limousin cows.

Looking at how they could reduce their away wintering costs, and the grazing pressure on some of the other in-bye land over at Inverness, the Camerons were able to take on an extra 41HA of grassland at Fass Fern in 2018.

Chris also looked to the monitor farms network to ask for ideas on how to manage twin lambs that required creep feeding on this ground. They suggested keeping lambs entire and finishing them, rather than castrating them and selling as stores. A lamb finishing trial, looked at the cost benefit of finishing lambs versus selling them as store, and the most efficient way to do this was completed, giving the wider community group confidence that this was a viable option.

As well as creating a new route to market, weaning the male lambs three weeks earlier had an additional impact.

“The following year I had 80 more sheep with twins. That’s massive for us,” Chris said. “The ewes just had a better chance to recover and because they were going to Inverness ground for the summer, they got a bit fatter, and their body condition score going into lambing was better, so fertility increased.”

QMS monitor farm facilitator and senior agricultural consultant for SAC Consulting, Niall Campbell said the results from this trial have benefited everyone involved in the monitor farm meetings.

“It’s broken the cycle of people just choosing to market store lambs,” he said. “It’s shown that there is an alternative and there is a way to add value to lambs, it’s given us a new level of business resilience.”

Chris said his mindset towards grassland management has also changed. “I was mistreating grass before, I wasn’t giving it enough respect for what it is as our cheapest form of feed,” he explained.

By taking on the extra acres of ground at Fass Fern, grazing pressure at lambing time has now been reduced on in-bye land at Inverness. Chris has also shifted the lambing period forward by two weeks to give grass longer to recover before silaging.

“I want to get sheep off the ground quickly so that we can get two cuts of silage and we’re not cutting the grass too late so it can recover,” added Chris

Silage yields and quality have improved as a result, allowing cow numbers to be upped by ten. Calf output has subsequently increased, whilst costs have remained similar.

Malcom Cameron added: “One of the biggest unspoken challenges farmers and crofters in this part of the world face is the isolation, we just don’t see our farming neighbours like we used to.

“The Monitor Farm Programme has given us the opportunity to come together as a group with shared vision and vested interest in the future of our local community and share thoughts and ideas about how we can improve things.”

Looking forward, Chris and Malcom have high hopes for the future, including looking at how they can continue to grow the output from their livestock enterprises over the coming years, and are targeting maintaining a weaning % of over 100% in their sheep flock, and growing sheep numbers to 600.  Chris and Malcom are also looking to maintain their 95% weaning on their cattle enterprise, focusing on stabilising numbers and reducing costs further.