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Final Monitor Farm Meeting at Fearn
by John Scott, Fearn Farm, Tain
As I sit down to write this I am, to say the least, jet-lagged following the
SNFU conference in Aviemore. I suspect I am not alone. There will be others like me, throughout the
country, who arrived home with an early night firmly on the agenda. Probably the best quote that I heard this
morning was “If I’d thought I was going to be this dry this morning I would have drunk more last
night!” It was as usual a mixture of union business and much needed socialising, which in what can be a
solitary occupation such as ours, is always welcome.
We've been fairly busy at home over the past few weeks, bull sales followed by our early lambing and then our final Monitor Farm meeting has kept us occupied.
Our sole Beef Shorthorn entry at Perth sold well making 5500gns. We left home optimistic that he might be in the top end of the prices. Thankfully this time we were right and he got through the dreaded inspection. I had been avoiding calculating the costs of turning a bull out at Perth but eventually made the calculation a few days after I got home, £1500 was the figure by the time the hammer fell. This would obviously be reduced if more bulls were taken but nevertheless it's a serious cost, which I will build into my selection process of bulls for Stirling next year.
Our first lambing was fast and furious with 150 synchronised ewes lambing between the 1st and 8th of March; it went fairly well but in hindsight I should maybe have set more lambing pens up before I went to Perth. Things were a touch frantic by the time I arrived home on the 3rd but, in my defence, they weren't due until the 6th. Ewes and lambs are now outside having been kept in for ten days until the snow disappeared, and until they were big enough to avoid the fox, they seem to be doing fairly well on stubble turnips and a 20% home mixed ration. Hopefully the high prime sheep prices will hold up and by late May these lambs should be worth a bit of money.
Our last Monitor Farm meeting was held on the 12th of February in similar conditions to the very first one – snow, which as it happens, saved us from tidying up too much as a good covering of snow hides an untidy steading perfectly. It's not that bad but as with most busy periods tidying up is not high priority and hasn't been for the past couple of weeks. We had a good turn out of over forty community group members who reviewed the past three years discussing what we had all gained from the project.
Looking back we have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and have no regrets once we got over the Monitor Farm curse where just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong in the first few months it was relatively plain sailing. We had to learn to accept criticism and soon realised that we were not anywhere near as good as we thought we were as benchmarking showed up several areas in need of improvement.
There are too many positives to list but the ones that I have mentioned below are those that stand out for us.
1). Without the intervention of the community group we would have certainly built our new cattle shed in the wrong place and it would have been much lower than we actually built it, which would have limited its use. Effective use of sub groups is something that was very advantageous throughout the process.
2). Our sheep system has been completely transformed, we have stopped winter shearing and have moved towards a system which makes best use of stubble turnips sown after spring barley. Our winter concentrate costs have been dramatically reduced and although the system isn't perfect yet, it's probably the most exciting thing to have come from the monitor farm from our point of view.
3). Creep feeding lambs was a fairly hot topic early on in the project and eventually we agreed to creep feed lambs last year with dramatic effects. This when combined with high clover grass mixes has made a big difference on lamb finishing. We have never had all our lambs away as early as we did as last year and this year should be even better with a swing back towards more terminal sires. Reduced use of fertilizer and earlier income from lamb sales have been the main benefits from creep feed.
4). One of the first suggestions to be made in regard to our cattle set up was to get rid of the autumn calving herd. We agreed wholeheartedly with this and cow numbers have been reduced through ruthless culling. Numbers of spring calvers will rise again but only now that fertility levels have risen to acceptable levels.
5). One of the biggest plus points of monitor farms is the social side of things; our group has been excellent craic. We had one member who attended nearly every meeting and never failed to amuse us with his one liners, which were often very valid points, which left the 'experts' speechless. We called this the BV effect and Billy Vass received a bottle of malt for his valuable contributions over the past three years.
Finally thanks are due to our facilitator – Derek Hanton from SAC – who has done a tremendous job over the past three years, it's fairly simple, if your facilitator is sub standard it doesn't matter how good your community group is, the project is doomed. We were fortunate we had an open minded group and an enthusiastic facilitator, we hope to keep this team together and there are plans for life after monitor farm.