Battling the Scottish weather and EU three-crop rule

Beef operation includes two-year-old ‘store’ cattle for finishing

Farming in the northwest of Scotland can be tough enough given the somewhat challenging weather, but having to fight over which crops to plant is an added hassle.

Mike Martin runs Garguston Farm at Muir of Ord on the Black Isle peninsula, with his sons Ali and Johnnie operating a mixed crop and beef enterprise.

The Martins grow 1,094 acres of spring barley destined for the whisky distilleries, 80 acres of oats, 70 acres of winter barley and 285 acres of seed potatoes.

The farm also grows 40 acres of silage from which they take two cuts, and graze the remaining 120 acres. All told they farm just under 1,700 acres of which 700 are owned, 150 are held via a tenancy and the rest contract-farmed.

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All the barley goes for malting, with 50 per cent of the tonnage going to Highland Grain just down the road.

With details of the U.K.’s exit from the European Union on hold as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Martins hope Brexit will eventually mean an end to the EU three-crop rule which applied to the 2019 growing season.

The regulation required farmers with more than 30 hectares of arable land to grow three crops, with the main crop not exceeding 75 per cent and the two main crops not exceeding 95 per cent of the total arable area.

“It really is a hindrance on our production as we should be allowed to grow whatever we want,” says Ali Martin. “Grass under five years old also counts as one of the crops but this rule makes it more difficult to plan field use and overall logistics. We would do better without it.”

The Martins use a fleet of machines with precision technology to sow their crops and maintain them during the growth stages.

“We plough everything,” says Ali. “And we sow seeds using precision technology that has accuracy of two centimetres. The main tractors and self-propelled sprayers all use GPS for their operations.”

The Martins opt to use their own machinery rather than being part of a local machinery pool. The farm runs both Fendt and John Deere tractors including a Fendt 828 Vario and a Fendt 936 costing around £155,000 (C$257,430) each. There are two John Deere 6130 models and a 6140 model too.

“Two Bateman self-propelled sprayers look after all the spraying requirements,” says Ali. “We replace the machinery regularly and buy them with warranties of 6,000 hours and over.”

Manure part of a fertility program

Looking after the land and crops is very important for the Martins in their management program during the year, with soil condition high up on the list. “It is of vital importance that we look after our soil,” says Ali. “With that in mind we spread solid farmyard manure from the beef herd on all the arable land. And we ensure the correct crop rotations are implemented.”

The cattle enterprise complements the arable side of the farm. The Martins purchase all their store cattle in the spring from Dingwall, Inverurie, Caithness and Orkney livestock marts as well as from private sellers. Store cattle are growing animals that are usually up to two years old that are bought and then finished.

Photo: Chris McCullough.

“We buy the cattle in weighing in the region of 380 kgs to 400 kgs, fatten them up and sell around 700 kgs and over,” says Ali. “The cattle are fed on a homegrown mix, and we only buy in draff, which is a byproduct from the whisky industry, and pot ale syrup.

“I do most of the buying and enjoy the atmosphere at the marts. The Simmental breed is probably the one I go for mostly but we do have Charolais around and perhaps I should be looking more at beef Shorthorns as they would do well on our mix.

“All the fat cattle are sold, on the hook, direct to ABP at Perth. It is the only product on the farm we could sell if we needed cash, as the others are all sold on contract. The cattle tie in well with the ground.

“The goal is to achieve a daily liveweight gain of 1.4 kgs per head per day and as you can imagine feed costs account for the largest slice of our costs.”

As of late 2019 beef prices were down hitting about £3.50 (C$5.80) per kilo deadweight. Prices have been as high as £4.20 (CAN$6.98) per kilo but the Martins don’t expect to see a return to those prices anytime soon.

“The store cattle cost us an average of £900 (C$1,494) each and we aim to sell them for £1,500 (C$2,491) per head to leave us a decent margin after costs,” he said.

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