A drastic change in location has proved a game-changer for father and son team Philip and Giles Lane. Jonathan Long visits Scotland to learn more about the diversity within their land.
A move from Leicestershire to Dumfries and Galloway has allowed one family to fulfil their farming ambitions and provide a platform for growth.
For Lockerbie-based Giles Lane and his father Philip, the move north of the border 18 years ago provided a platform to farm in their own right and develop a diverse, livestock-based business, covering beef cattle, laying hens and breeding sheep.
Philip had managed an estate in Leicestershire for many years, but following family deaths, the estate was sold. Rather than looking for another managerial position, he decided he would develop a business based on buying ewe lambs and running them through to shearlings before selling them on.
Giles says: “In some cases, these were owned by a landowner and managed on their behalf and, in other cases, we owned the lambs.
“It got to the stage where one year there were close to 10,000 lambs being carried through winter and was a good business. But while it was sustainable, it relied on rented ground and this was always going to be the challenge.”
And so the family bought 71-hectare (175-acre) Raeburn Head Farm, Kirkpatrick Fleming, in 1998.
Giles says: “This is a renowned grass farm, all of which is ploughable, but we only grow grass and we have worked hard to bring the best out of a farm which was in a poor state back then.
“We then added another farm, Middlebierigg, in 2004, with this one extending to 190 acres, and in 2012 we bought 185 acres of ground neighbouring Raeburn Head.
“Middlebierigg has 120 acres in good permanent pasture and the remainder is more marginal ground. The 185 acres adjoining Raeburn Head is more challenging land, as it is mainly low raised bog.
“But it immediately adjoins the ground our poultry units sit on and we were fearful of the potential biosecurity risk if someone else bought it. It also has an access right down our driveway, which was another concern.”
The Lanes now have a Scottish Rural Development Programme rural priorities agreement on this ground, which is a site of special scientific interest, and use it to graze Galloway cross steers through summer to convert poorer quality forage efficiently.
Giles says: “While some people may have seen this ground as a potential problem, we saw it as an opportunity to protect a core part of our business and develop the farm’s environmental work, undertaking some scrub clearance on the ground as part of the rural priorities agreement.”
Galloway steers are bought-in as young stores, often buying weaned calves which are took right through to finishing, supplying a local butcher and farm shop.
“They like cattle to be nearing 30 months before we slaughter them, which means they can be with us for a fairly long time, but they cost little to keep, either grazing grass or wintering outside on silage alone.”
Meanwhile, the principle cattle enterprise on-farm is the family’s 50-cow pedigree Aberdeen-Angus herd run under the Rosslayne prefix, with the herd founded in 2004 and selling about 10-12 bulls a year from home, with many now going to repeat customers.
Giles says: “We have purposefully developed the herd with the commercial customer in mind. We breed structurally correct, long-lasting cattle which do well for our buyers.
“We ensure the key characteristics of the Angus – easy calving and easy fleshing – are retained, but we also have the modern beef market in mind.
“As a result, we do not push our calves, only introducing creep feed to our spring-born calves in early autumn to help as milk yields drop and grass quality falls away.
“For this reason, we prefer to sell at home rather than sales, as I do not like to see cattle being pushed for sale only to go back once they go to a new home.
“I would rather our bulls went away and continued to grow and improve, giving buyers confidence in our cattle.”
Showing is limited for the same reason, with generally only young calves shown at the Aberdeen-Angus Winter National Show, Carlisle.
Giles says: “While showing can be a great advertising medium, some cattle taking the tickets do not always represent the commercial reality of the beef industry.”
The herd has, in recent years, moved to calving at two years old, having previously calved at two-and-a-half.
“The trouble with calving at two-and-a-half years was it meant we had to calve heifers in autumn, which was out of line with the rest of the herd.
“Leaving them until three was not something we wanted to consider, so we switched to two years instead. I was apprehensive of heifers being big enough, but needn’t have been. In fact, part of the reason for the switch was to help limit mature cow size, as we felt some of our cows were getting too big.”
Since the family’s involvement in the poultry sector through their 22,000 free-range laying hens, the family have focussed on efficiency in other aspects of the business, notably looking at how calf weaning weight relates to mature cow size.
Giles says: “We have since tried to moderate cow size, as it is evident larger cows do not generally rear a bigger calf and certainly are not more efficient when you look at costs of keeping them.
“By moderating cow size, we are aiming to run more cows on the same acreage, as we will only be carrying the same bodyweight of cows per acre.”
Giles believes this is particularly relevant as the industry looks to adapt to changes in carcase weights being introduced by a large number of processors.
“Hens have definitely made us think carefully about other aspects of the business. We erected our first shed in 2007, stocking for the first time in December of the same year.
“This was a 10,000-bird shed, with a further 12,000-bird shed added in February 2009.
“The investment required for these was significant, but they have been the backbone of the business in many ways since then, providing a consistent cashflow, much akin to a milk cheque. This has been a real boost to cashflow and enabled us to invest in other areas of the business.
“We operate sheds on an all-in-all-out basis, stocking and destocking at the same time. While this means we have a short period when they are empty, we minimise disease risk to flocks.”
Hens arrive at Raeburn Head as 15- to 16-week-old point of lay pullets and are then kept through to 74 weeks old, with some flocks remaining until 76 weeks old.
The aim is for a long-lasting bird, with the family preferring Lohmann Lites for this trait, as well as their ability to lay good numbers of eggs.
“We supply eggs on contract to Glenrath Farms and are paid on egg numbers rather than weight, so we have not gone for a bird capable of laying a bigger egg.”
In a move which harks back to the family’s farming roots, they have in recent years ventured back into the sheep sector, once again buying ewe lambs to run through to gimmers.
In 2014, the family bought 120 Texel cross ewe lambs, which were sold as gimmers this autumn, with a further 200 bought this year to be run round for sale next year.
Giles says: “I certainly do not see us going back up to the numbers we used to be involved with, but having sheep on-farm is helping with grassland management, with ewe lambs cleaning up well behind cattle.
“It also further diversifies income streams of the business, allowing us to improve our risk management.”
Looking ahead, the Lanes believe the business is aiming to be as financially and technically efficient as possible without sacrificing performance.
Giles says: “It is a difficult balance to strike and there are times when costs cannot be trimmed.
“We would never compromise on feed for laying hens, for example, as you would soon see the impact. They are a high performance animal and have to be managed as such, with our best flock laying 334 eggs per bird housed at 72 weeks. You cannot achieve that without getting every aspect of management right.
“I would like to increase cow numbers to 60 in the Aberdeen-Angus herd and sell a higher number of bulls a year, but equally we will continue to be strict with our criteria, castrating any bull calf we do not feel will make the grade.
“With our steers in good demand as forward stores, there is no point trying to make bulls of animals which are not suited to it. Our last batch of steers recently sold straight off grass with concentrates at 570kg at 17 months old and made £1,150/head.
“Hopefully, in time, as our name spreads and the reputation of our stock grows, we will be able to sell a number of breeding heifers every year too and maximise the value of all our stock.”