Farm Profit Programme: good things come to those who wait
In the final week of benchmark results from the focus farms, we see how the Websters at Ardhuncart and the Gammies at Drumforber have got on in the first year of the project.

Webster Family, Ardhuncart Farm

Year one is complete and we are swinging in to year two with a few changes starting to take effect.

There is always a pinch point in early spring when grass is quite scarce. We are trying to have ewes and lambs out at pasture and start to get cows and calves out as well. To try to preserve more grass this winter, we established a crop of swedes on just 1ha of ground to see how it would work for getting the ewes off the grass for a few weeks. It was done as a bargain basement job, by mixing the seed with a bag of 10:18:28 in the hopper of the one pass and then cultivating directly in to the stubble. The crop took well and while it didn’t yield as high as a full crop of swedes, it kept the sheep long enough to give the grass a bit of a break.

Last year lambing was a real struggle with a lot of prolapses. There is a suggestion that ewe prolapses are driven by a lack of magnesium in the diet. The fields that the ewes were grazing on pre-lambing last year were some of the higher-K index fields on the farm. Using the same logic as grass staggers, that high K compromises magnesium uptake, this year we have grazed the ewes on fields with a lower K index.

So far it looks to have reduced prolapse incidence. Whether this is from the reduced K or as a result of bringing in more Cheviot mules this year and culling any problem ewes, we don’t know.

Benchmark

2017 was a poor year for us, we lost five cows for various reasons, and also we didn’t sell as many heifers with calves at foot as planned therefore sales were reduced. However, these heifers have been retained and will boost the output of our own herd in the coming year.

The sheep have improved, due mainly to the reduced amount of hard feed purchased by feeding to litter size and improved sale prices last year.

Aim for this year

This year, the sheep are going to go on a rotation on a new ley at the eastern edge of the farm. It is quite a steep field and initially, we have it split in four, with gates at either end of each fence to make moving stock easy. We plan to make more, better quality silage and remove any unproductive animals from the system. With the extra heifers coming into our herd we can afford to cull that bit harder this year.

The Gammie Family Drumforber Farm

One year in, there have been many changes on the farm. Making top-quality silage for growing stock was one. 2017 silage has 33% more energy than 2016, meaning we have fed next to no concentrates to the heifer calves that will be returning to grass this year. This was achieved by bringing forward the cutting date to the end of May.

The high-quality silage also meant that we have used ammonia-treated straw for the dry cows. This has worked well for us, utilising some of the condition the cows had built up over the grazing season. We then swapped them onto a diet with straw, silage and draff six weeks or so pre-calving to build up milk and colostrum quality.

Getting cattle out to grass earlier really helped reduce the winter feed bill last year with young stock getting out towards the end of March and cows and calves from mid-April onwards.

We looked at the bedding situation very early in the season and decided to do something about it. We have tray driers that run on wood chip and we dried some more chip down and bedded the cattle with it. This has worked really well, with the cattle remaining clean and dry over winter on one mucking out.

Cost wise, it has come in a good bit cheaper than using straw for bedding but we have yet to see how it behaves when we spread it on the ground. We are using wood chip for all the youngstock and cows with calves at foot. The dry cows were on wood chip but now as they approach calving we have moved them on to straw.

Benchmark

As any newly established business will know, it can take time for the initial investment to pay off. This is something we expected and are prepared to work at over the coming years.

We can be assured that by putting a robust system in place from day one, it will pay off in the long run. Gross margin per cow was £264 for last year. We expect to see this increase significantly throughout the lifetime of the project.

Aim for this year

After the success of last year’s early turnout, we are hoping to be able to do the same again. At the minute, ground conditions don’t look like we will be as early as last year but we are holding out hope that things will dry up soon.

There actually is plenty of grass about as it kept growing into October but unfortunately ground was too wet to get out and graze it. It would be nice to get a quick grazing across all the ground as soon as possible to encourage new growth once temperatures rise.

Cow numbers will continue to expand as we try to get to what we feel comfortable with. I have also recently done an AI course so I will see how that goes on some of the cows and heifers this coming year.

Practical problems stopping land tax
A Land Commission report published options to create a land tax in Scotland.

Proposals to tax land were published by the Land Commission, offering options for the Scottish Government to take forward. The report states the aim of a land value tax is to reduce derelict land, capture land price spikes for the public purse and create more diversity of ownership. However, the Scottish Government states there are no plans to create a tax at this moment, claiming there are “significant practical problems to be resolved”.

The report suggests that using a land value tax could achieve these objectives, but the Reading University-written report does state that a number of practical issues would need to be resolved before any system is implemented. Options in the report include creating a new land tax system and including farmland in business rates.

“The research suggests land value tax could contribute to addressing key land reform objectives, including bringing vacant and derelict sites into use, reinvesting rising land values to public benefit and moving to a more diverse and productive pattern of land ownership,” said Hamish Trench, chief executive of the Scottish Land Commission. The Scottish Green party is keen to seen this proposal move forward.

Scottish Green party MSP, Andy Wightman, said: “This is a very welcome report which recognises the massive untapped potential of using land values to raise funds for public services, as well as encouraging fairer and more productive ownership of land, rather than the speculative hoarding of it – which blights many communities.

“It’s good to see this long-standing Scottish Greens policy being actively considered by the Scottish Land Commission.”

However Alexandra Docherty, tax partner at Johnston Carmichael, who operates NFU Scotland’s Tax Advice Helpline, would urge caution.

“The findings of the report show a lack of practical evidence of these benefits among the countries considered as part of the study.

“There are a number of practical issues that need to be considered carefully by the commission. For instance, the inference of the report is that landowners have flexibility to maximise the use of their land. As we know from regulations surrounding basic payment entitlements within the agricultural sector, landowners are subject to rigid regulations on land use and must conform, otherwise their access to agricultural subsidies would be impacted.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have no plans to introduce a land value tax in Scotland. While the Scottish Land Commission report highlights the potential role this tax might have in progressing our land reform policies, it details significant practical issues to be resolved before it could be realised.

“We remain committed to making local taxation more progressive, while improving the financial accountability of local government. We have made clear that we are open to further dialogue on options for local tax reform.”

The report looks into different options for the government, including creating a new taxation system for land and land businesses, like agriculture, in current business rates.

The report looked at land taxation in Australia (Queensland), Estonia, New Zealand, Denmark, South Africa and Namibia for suggestions on how it could be implemented in Scotland. From these case studies the report states: “There was little evidence that land value tax has any perceptible redistributive effect, helps with breaking up large estates, or with bringing under-utilised land in to beneficial use, although it was claimed that in Estonia it had encouraged owners to dispose of land not in productive use.”

In Estonia, the local government sets a land value tax of between 0.1% to 2.0% of the value of the land, with most setting a rate nearer the top of the band.

Meanwhile, land tax was seen as a way to get more diversity of land ownership in Namibia, which the report points out has farmland mainly owned by white people. The taxation of commercial farm land has been seen as a success due to the extent of popular and political support, and the amount of revenue it has raised to fund the acquisition of land for land reform purposes.

12% drop in Scottish cereal production
Poor weather hits the Scottish cereal yield.

A combination of a 9% drop in yield and 3% drop in area had left Scotland with 12% less cereals this year than in 2017, according to Scottish Government’s final estimates.

The 2.5m tonne harvest has been blamed on unfavourable weather conditions experienced in winter 2017, as well as spring and early summer of 2018. The government points out that due to the weather a number of farmers switched to harvesting whole-crop due to low yields and quality.

Spring barley’s yield fell 6%, but production fell only 3% due to a 3% increase in area planted. Poor sowing conditions in 2017 saw winter barley area drop by a fifth and yields also fell 4%, leaving nearly a quarter less of production.

This is the smallest amount of Scottish production since 1993 and the lowest area planted since records started in 1982.

Wheat was also down, as the area grown fell nearly 10% and yields were down 16%.

Across the country less popular crops, like oats and oilseed rape, also saw reductions in area, yield and production over the last year.

Final estimates of the Scottish Cereal and Oilseed Rape Harvest are based on final yield results from the 2018 Cereal Production Survey.

These are combined with final crop areas from the 2018 June census to give production totals.

Smallest potato harvest since 2012
British potato tonnage is at its lowest in six years, while the Scottish yield per hectare increases.

Shoppers are being told to prepare for a greater diversity of potato shapes and sizes, as total British tonnage drops to lowest in six years. The total British potato harvest is 13% down on the five-year average of 5.6m tonnes to 4.9m tonnes, the annual Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) estimates. The relatively low production figure is a result of an estimated 4.4% drop in planted area across GB, and a 12% drop in average yield.

Average yields in England were 40.1t/ha, a 20% decrease from the 49.9t/ha seen last season.

This has been put down to late planting and a prolonged hot and dry summer stalling growth in June and July.

The 53% of potato fields which had access to irrigation suffered less in the hot, dry spell.

More tonnage/ha in Scotland

Meanwhile, the Scottish yield per hectare rose 3% to 49.2t/ha. This has been put down to a less severe heatwave. Eastern Scotland, which grows most of the tatties, received 75mm of rain in June and July compared with only 43mm in central England.

Although total production did dip as the area planted fell to 1,600 fewer hectares planted.

Sector strategy director at AHDB Potatoes, Dr Rob Clayton, said: “We won’t run out of potatoes, didn’t in 2012 and we won’t in 2018. But what consumers will notice is a wider range of shapes and sizes in the bag they bring home.

“With fewer potatoes around this year, supermarkets won’t be able to only choose from the ‘middle’ section of sizes – hence more variety in the bag.”