Nuffield Scholar – Steven Sandison,

Sponsor – The MacRobert Trust

NF1Objectives of Study Tour

  • Are the benchmarking targets suggested by industry bodies realistic?
  • What is the best being achieved here in the UK/Ireland?
  • What do those farmers have in common?
  • Which management practices are important?
  • What can we learn from farmers in other countries?

Countries visited – UK, Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Norway

Messages –

  • The targets set by industry bodies are too high
  • Cow type and breed do affect these targets
  • Staff and management also affect these targets
  • The many services and products which are offered to farmers can be useful but not always necessary
  • The family and staff connected to the farm business could benefit from knowing the farm’s full potential, to help them support and challenge those making the decisions.

My name is Steven Sandison. I am married to Lorraine and we have three children: Carmen, Callie and Glen. We live in the parish of Harray in the Orkney Islands, in the north of Scotland. I was born in 1979, I am the youngest of three children and was brought up on a small family beef farm. During my childhood the family business was built up but it still wasn’t big enough for me to work at home when I left school at the age of 16. From an early age I had a keen interest in cattle and especially beef cows. I was very fortunate to get a job as soon as I left school, on a mixed dairy and beef farm where I could also attend the local college where I undertook a Higher National Certificate in Agriculture. I milked cows for three years until they were sold off and replaced with beef cows. For the next few years I was contracted out working on other beef farms and this gave me a great opportunity to see different systems and management practices.

Lorraine and I were married in 2002 and bought the first of our own stock in 2003. We rented land at first and were fortunate to be offered a farm to buy in 2006. Since then we have bought another farm and built cow numbers up to 100. We currently farm 330 acres, 230 which are owned and 100 on seasonal lets. We have Simmental and Salers cross cows and sell the calves as stores and we also grow some spring barley.

I feel very fortunate to be doing a job I love and feel a sense of responsibility to do the best with what I have. A combination of having no hobbies, being mean and being brought up to avoid waste, has led me to my interest in benchmarking and measuring everything related to the business and especially the cows.

Beef farmers are continually being told they need to be more efficient. Consultants, vets, breed   societies, machinery dealers and feed merchants are all offering farmers information, services, gadgets, feeds, minerals and vaccines. Despite this, Quality Meat Scotland estimates that only 82% of beef cows in Scotland wean a calf each year. Meanwhile QMS and SRUC publish guidance for suckler farmers which recommends that herds should be weaning 92-94% from a 9 week breeding period. Either this target is unrealistic or the industry is underachieving.

The two main objectives of my study were to find out if the targets were achievable, and what the best suckler producers had in common. I have met over 100 farmers in the UK, Ireland, Canada,  Sweden and Norway. The main part of my study was based on the farmers in the UK and Ireland. Farmers learn more from other farmers and in order for this report to be relevant to farmers in the UK it should reflect similar systems which face the same challenges whether it is weather, disease or market prices. I visited Canada to see larger systems which had to deal with extreme cold and no support payments. Norway and Sweden also had to deal with extreme cold and adhere to strict welfare rules.

I asked all the farmers the same 22 questions to find out what breeds, housing, forage type, minerals, feeding method, management and health planning they had. But, most importantly, what was the scanning, calving, weaning and replacement rate. Only 10% of the farmers I met in the UK were achieving better than the target of 92%. So the main focus of my study was to compare the top 10% with the bottom 10% of the farmers which I met, which would represent the average suckler producer in Scot-land.

My findings have shown that 92% is setting the bar too high. Breed and type of cattle does matter. Continental and native breeds have different strengths and when you combine the two you can have the best of both worlds. Heifers should be calved at two years old unless it is an extensive system using slow maturing, hardy breeds which do live longer. Block calving within 9 or at the most 12 weeks is achievable with the right management and cow type. All the other management practices, services and products are important but can vary greatly between farms.

NF2

After visiting farms in different countries which are achieving 92% weaning, I am in no doubt that the industry can improve greatly on what is being achieved at the moment. Farmers have all the tools and information already to achieve this. It is time to get this message across.

Also, is it time the farmer’s family and staff knew how much potential the average suckler cow herd has? They may hold the key to support and encourage the farmer to make the changes needed to improve the life of the farmer, reduce losses and improve profitability.

The full report can be downloaded and is a very interesting read. http://www.nuffieldinternational.org/rep_pdf/1479806771Steven-Sandison-report-2015.pdf