Establishing a sustainable farming business at just 24 years old is certainly an impressive achievement and one which Aberdeenshire young farmer, William Law, has taken in his stride over the past three years. Katrina Macarthur reports.
Brought up on the family farm near Huntly, having returned home after school to work with his uncle and grandfather, William Law, 27, fulfilled his ambition in the summer of 2018 when he bought a 30-hectare (75-acre) unit just two miles from home.
Passionate about breeding commercial livestock and determined to increase numbers, West Cruichie is now home to 110 suckler cows and 500 breeding ewes, while 12ha (30 acres) of spring barley and 7ha (15 acres) of turnips and fodder beet is grown for home use.
An additional 121ha (300 acres) of seasonal grazing is rented each year to accommodate livestock throughout the summer months.
Mr Law also runs an additional 80 heifers which are mainly bought as in-calf females in October, before being calved and sold back through the sale ring in the spring with a calf at foot at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre.
Along with a huge amount of hard work, determination and commitment, the purchase of the farm was made possible by sourcing finance through the bank and the New Entrant Capital Grant Scheme.
Securing mart finance from ANM Group has also been a huge help in buying breeding stock to increase herd and flock numbers over the last few years.
Mr Law says: “When the opportunity came up to purchase a farm so close to home, I knew I had to go for it and was fortunate to be successful.
“There are not many chances of securing a tenancy in this area and partnerships with family members can become complicated further down the line. It was a stressful time securing the farm and the biggest challenge was getting the bank to commit. I also would not be able to run the livestock numbers without the finance from the mart.”
The commercial breeding heifer business has expanded each year since buying the first 45 in October 2018 and Mr Law now sells to returning buyers throughout Aberdeenshire, who are mainly looking for big framed, milky Simmental heifers with Limousin calves at foot.
It is a policy which is ticking the boxes as although they take up a lot of time and involve many sleepless nights, the heifers are ensured in-calf when bought and are only on the farm for six months so produce a quick return. Heifers with calves sold in April 2020 averaged £2,374.
“There are fewer in-calf heifers coming onto the market so it would be ideal if I could buy the heifers and bull them myself so I have control of which sire to use. It is a huge boost buying them when they are guaranteed in-calf though,” says Mr Law.
“Most of the heifers are Simmental crosses as they suit the producers up here for crossing to the Charolais but I do buy in a few Limousin crosses because they are easier fleshed. A decent black or blue heifer will always sell well at Thainstone because there are fewer of them on offer.”
The heifers are bought in-calf at 24 to 32 months of age, usually from Alan Gibb, Backhill of Seggat, Turriff, and Gordon Dow, Upper Sauchen, Inverurie, with preference made on big, powerful and preferably darker coloured Simmentals.
This year’s heifers include 25 which were bought-in as bulling heifers for running with his own Limousin bull, Wedderburn Oscar. Most of them were bought out of Thainstone, with a few from Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Caithness Livestock Centre.
“In my first year of buying in-calf heifers, I bought them at an average price of £1,480 and sold them to a top of £3,000 for a red Limousin cross outfit,” says Mr Law.
“This year, I still bought within reason but had to increase my budget to £1,750 due to the flying trade for all classes of livestock.”
Once the heifers arrive home in October, they are usually housed inside from day one and are fed a silage and straw ration, although Mr Law would prefer to have them outside for a month and feed silage if the weather stayed favourable.
After calving, draff and barley is introduced to the ration to aid milk quality and help put condition back on to the heifers before selling. Home-grown turnips are sometimes added to the diet closer to sale time.
All calves are tissue tagged for BVD and the heifers are vaccinated for BVD and leptospirosis before being sold either at the first sale in late April or when the later calved heifers are sold with their calves at the second sale, usually around the end of May.
As well as the spring-calving heifers, Mr Law bought-in 25 Simmental cross and Limousin cross heifers last September and October, which he has bulled at 18 to 20 months of age to the Limousin. He hopes to sell them through Thainstone in the autumn to aid cashflow.
The suckler herd includes 90 Simmental cross and Limousin cross spring-calving cows which calve from February 1 onwards and 20 autumn calvers which begin calving in mid-August.
Most of the cows are put to the Charolais (bulls from the Harestone and Kinclune herds) to produce fast growing calves which are sold as stores, while a handful run with the Limousin for breeding replacements and to introduce hybrid vigour.
The progeny is introduced to creep feed in July and they are then weaned in October and fed silage, fodder beet and treated barley with minerals, before being sold through the store ring at Thainstone at 10 to 12 months of age.
This year’s calves sold at an average weight of 392kg and levelled at 268p/kg or £1,051, with a top price of £1,105 paid for a pen of Charolais cross heifers.
Sheep numbers have increased significantly at West Cruichie, with 90 ewe hoggs also lambed alongside the 500 Scotch Mule ewes which lamb inside from the beginning of March onwards.
The replacements are bought-in as ewe lambs in September at United Auctions’ Stirling Centre and are tupped to the Charollais cross Beltex, while all ewes run with the Suffolk to produce prime lambs which are sold direct to Woodhead Bros, Turriff.
Mr Law says: “I like the Suffolk as it produces quick finishing lambs and although they probably lack the top grades, the lambs are generally heavier than most other breeds.
“It is good to get the lambs away as early as possible, particularly when I am renting a lot of grass out and about. I also keep 40 Blackfaces for tupping to the Bluefaced Leicester to produce some home-bred replacements.”
The first lambs from the 2020 crop were sold off grass on June 20 and most are away by mid-November. Last year’s crop sold to average £94 per head.
As well as increasing livestock numbers, Mr Law has made several changes and improvements to the steading and the land since he took over West Cruichie.
The farm was previously an arable unit only so most fields were sown with grass and made stockproof with new fences, while two new sheds have been added to the steading to house cattle, one of which was second-hand.
A new cattle handling system was also fitted last year and has been hugely beneficial to Mr Law, particularly as he is working with cattle on his own most of the time.
Farming at such a young age with the many pressures can be a lonely job, but Mr Law is fortunate to be running his business close to home and on a farm which neighbours with his cousin.
He is also grateful for the help and support from his brother Stuart, his parents Jake and Anne, and the regular advice from both grandfathers and farming stalwarts, Jimmy and William.