Perthshire farmer Andrew Barbour is combining livestock with forestry in a way that is producing wood, food and reducing greenhouse emissions (GHG).

The Scottish countryside is under intense pressure to reduce GHG emissions to net zero with 15,000ha of trees planted annually and targets to grow the food and drinks sector to £30bn (€35bn) a year. This has put Andrew’s system in the spotlight as it contributes towards many of the government’s goals.

Andrew and his wife, Seonag, run Fincastle Farm in the Perthshire uplands which extends to 500ha from 850ft to 1,300ft.

The farm is run on an organic system with 120ha of improved pasture and 30ha of woodland pasture and the rest is rough hill grazing.

Crop-growing on the farm stopped in the 1980s due to a combination of a lack of availability of suitable machinery for steep ground and the ease of availability of bought-in feeds. The unit now runs around 50 cows with 350 ewes and grows 40ha of silage and/or hay depending on the summer.

A cross between the Burren and the hills of Donegal

One of the unique features of the farm is that the hill ground has a special scientific designation. This is due to a limestone bedrock, which is uncommon in Scotland, and provides a wide array of habitats and plants. Andrew points out that the landscape isn’t far away from a cross between the limestone pavements of the Burren and the hills of Donegal.

To protect rare plants, Andrew must keep his sheep off the ground while allowing his cattle to graze it. The hill would traditionally support around 200 ewes so the business is compensated for the forgone income.

The cattle are moved between six large blocks of ground depending on the performance of the plants and flowers in the pastures.

Conservationists are keen to encourage cattle on the hill as their selective grazing keeps the area in good botanical order. However, summer-grazing sheep graze in a much more selective manner which can damage the flora.

The sheep are kept on the improved inbye (historically ploughable) pastures and run in a rotational grazing mob moving between fields every three to five days.

The system is swapped around at the end of summer with the cows coming down from the hill to calve in spring and the sheep heading to higher ground.

The ewes return for flushing and tupping before the singles are put back to the hill until marking time. Twins and triplets are kept closer at hand so they can access ewe rolls (large nuts).

Andrew points out that the feed is not to be wasted as being organic it costs about twice the price of conventional at £450/t (€528/t).

Seanag Barbour, Bethany Robson, Catherine Barbour and Andrew Barbour.

Flock of 350 ewes

The farm has a flock of 350 ewes which are based on a cross between Texel, Lleyn and Cheviot to make a white-faced commercial animal. The majority then go back to the Texel to produce finished lambs. Llyen and Cheviot tups are then used for breeding replacements.

Tups are bought at both sales and privately with a typical budget of £600 to £800 each.

When selecting breeding stock Andrew focuses on those with high-index EBV figures, particularly for fat cover and lambing ease.

Luckily for Andrew’s organic accreditation, he can buy non-organic tups and bulls for the farm. The only requirement is that when they are culled they are not sold as organic.

The farm aims and achieves 150% lambing with most lambs finished off grass and either sold organic to Kepak in Porthlethan or sold through the live ring.

Depending on the store trade and availability of grass, some animals are sold as organic stores. Andrew points out that there is an issue with organic lamb production in the UK as all the lambs are ready at the same time.

Getting them booked into slaughterhouses can be a challenge as many of the lambs having to be sold in the conventional market forgoing any organic premium some years. Organic lamb has been making a 40p/kg premium in the abattoir in recent weeks, down from the elevated £8/kg of mid-summer.

Suckler cows

The farm runs 50 suckler Shorthorn cross cows, with six purebred whitebred shorthorn cows and six highland purebred cows which are bred with either a Whitebred Shorthorn or a Limousin bull.

Andrew breeds his own replacements between the two breeds but doesn’t like more than 50% Limousin genetics due to it being an upland farm. This year, the farm bred in three groups with one Shorthorn and two Limousin bulls.

Easy-calving is the number one attribute Andrew looks for in his bulls where he typically spends between £2,500 and £4,000 per animal.

The heifers in the herd calve at three years old as he finds that calving at two years causes problems for the cows later down the line. None of the calves are creep fed, so Andrew is keen to let the animals grow before putting to the bull.

The offspring are grown on until 18 months before selling as stores direct to a finisher, normally averaging 450kg at this age.

Andrew is part of a Waitrose programme with his cattle ending up on the shelves of the upmarket retailer. These types of organic cattle typically have been getting £5/kg dwt (€5.90/kg dwt).

The cows all calve outside in March but have access to an old cubicle shed if the weather turns. The cows are fed inside to keep the tractor off the fields in winter.

“It is a bit like a dairy system,” Andrew explains. “We chase them out if it is hard and dry and hold them in if it is wet.”

Bales of fodder

Andrew cuts his grass for silage or hay in July or August depending on the weather. From the 40ha, he obtains around 500 to 600 bales for the winter. If it is a good summer then up to 400 bales can be made up of hay or hayledge.

To keep costs down, he has all his own equipment and doesn’t use any contractors. The fields are over-seeded every eight to 10 years with a rejuvenative diverse sward mix using a Simtech direct grassland drill.

While the cows have access to a cubicle shed in spring most will pick one of the sheltered wooded areas nearby to calve.

Andrew believes that this helps keep the disease burden and stress on the cow to a minimum.

“I am a strong believer in letting the cow choose where she wants to go,” says Andrew.

“We don’t get pneumonia on farm.”

Integrating trees and livestock

Alongside farming, the Barbours have a significant forestry interest with 300ha of mostly commercial planting next to the farm. In addition to the commercial trees, the farm also has a number of 2ha shelter belts and smaller woodlands which amounts to 30ha in total. This is common on many farms in Scotland when grants had been available in the 1960s and 1970s.

These small woodlands often have poor access and don’t offer enough yield to interest commercial harvesting with many contributing little to the business. However, at Fincastle Farm, they are keen to make woodland and livestock production work together.

Back in 2009, Andrew had the idea of try an integrated model of growing commercial trees alongside grazing livestock in woodland pastures.

“Our aim is to get around 50% to 60% canopy cover with deciduous trees,” Andrew explains. “This would provide grass growth in the spring and shelter in the summer from the heat and winter from the cold.”

So, 12 years ago, Andrew picked a free-draining part of the farm to plant seven hectares of new woodland pasture with oak. Heavily drained land is to be avoided as the roots will block them up.

The trees were planted as a density of 1,600 trees per hectare which is around two-thirds of a commercial forestry rate of 2,500 trees. The trees have been planted in 10 metre strips with six metre strips of open pasture between them. This planting was supported by grant aid with Andrew planting the minimum density of trees per hectare as permitted in the scheme.

1,600 trees per hectare

“At the time, the government was desperate for farmers to plant trees so we were able to interpret the rules in a way which allowed the integrated woodland pasture model,” says Andrew.

“If I was doing it again, I would drop the tree number to around 1,000 trees per hectare, but it wasn’t an option under the grant rules.

“We went for the columns of trees with pasture between because at our altitude trees only grow in groups. We are too exposed to grow trees successfully in a more even spare planting style which could work on flat ground in the lowlands.”

The trees should be ready for harvest at 100 years of age, long after Andrew has gone, he admits. The woodland should harvest 70 to 100 fully grown oak trees per hectare which over the seven hectares would be nearly 1,000 cubic metres of oak. The price of timber is rising at the moment with the latest estimates at £200/m3 (€230/m3) which would offer a return of £200,000 (€235,000) at today’s price in the year 2110.

However, the future of trees may lie in carbon storage, where the trees could earn money through not being cut down. Oaks can regularly live to over 300 years of age. The farm’s 30ha of woodland sequesters over six tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare each year which is one-third of the farm’s total.

Grazing under trees

On top of the integrated woodland pasture, Andrew has been thinning his shelter belts on the farm to allow grazing.

The trees are a mix of pine, birch and alder and other species. “We remove around a quarter of the trees with thinning by ourselves,” Andrew explains.

“It is too small a job for commercial people so we have to do it ourselves.”

The grasses among the trees have not been sown but are a mix of natural plants like fescues and historic rye grass.

The growth of grass starts earlier in the season in the woodlands than the rest of the farm.

The trees are grazed in a mob system where around 450 ewes and lambs will graze a woodland pasture for two days before moving on. The cows also browse the tree line where Andrew has noticed they prefer rowan and ash trees over alder or blackthorns.

Health benefits

Andrew is not able to quantify the health benefits of this varied diet but the cattle get no medical treatment for parasites with the sheep only getting treated for fluke when needed, which some years is none at all.

The only supplements are high mag tubs for the cows to avoid staggers.

Farm profile

  • 500ha upland farm.
  • 50 suckler cows.
  • 350 ewes.
  • 30ha of woodland pasture.