Innovative breeding and marketing strategies are helping one north of Scotland family drive their business forward, as Jonathan Long finds out.
A focus on breeding pedigree stock suited to the needs of their commercial customers may be the mantra of many sheep and cattle enthusiasts, but few typify it so well as Ross Shire-based John Scott and his family.
John, the fourth generation of his family to farm at Fearn Farm, Tain, has, alongside his father James, mother Janet and wife Fiona, spent the last 20 years developing both pedigree cattle and sheep enterprises based on local demand.
He says: “Demand for high quality breeding bulls and rams locally is strong and many farmers prefer to buy locally rather than travel to the major sales further south.
“Our focus, therefore, has always been on producing stock to suit their needs and those of our customers further afield.”
With pedigree Texel and Beltex flocks running alongside a nucleus New Zealand Suffolk flock and more than 3,000 commercial ewes as well as pedigree Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn herds, the family and their core staff of Ben Ockenden and Martin Scott are certainly kept busy throughout the year.
But, being conscious of their location in the north of Scotland, the Scotts have always paid close attention to marketing, taking time to understand their customers’ needs and ensure they showcase their stock at every opportunity.
“We have a good local trade which we have built up over the years, but also have many customers further afield and keeping in regular contact with them and ensuring they are aware of what we have coming for sale is essential to maximise stock values.
“As a result I am quite marketing focused, taking time to use social media to back up our own farm website and ensure we reach as large an audience as possible.
“Social media and web marketing are great ways of allowing our customers to understand what we are trying to achieve with our stock and mean they have access to a full range of breeding, health and general farm information easily and simply,” he says
Alongside this interactive approach to marketing, John and his father have also over the last three years developed their own on-farm ram sale aimed at both local and more widespread customers.
“Both ourselves and many of our customers had become weary of travelling to sales across Scotland and further afield,” he says.
“We felt by staging our own sale we could cut out a lot of our sale expenses and improve our relationships with our customers. It also gives us a chance to market our rams in a way which would not suit many of the larger sales, with our rams marketed in their working clothes rather than heavily fed and dressed up for sale.
“I believe this is important as the sheep industry moves forward with reduced reliance on grain feeding. Indeed we feel it is that important the sale is called the ‘Great From Grass’ sale,” he adds.
Importantly too, he says, the sale which is held in mid-August every year, is as much a social occasion as a business one and brings the local farming community together.
“This year’s sale was an outstanding success, with 70 rams sold and Texel shearlings averaging £763.98 and New Zealand Suffolk shearlings averaging £693.
“For the first time this year we also sold Aberfield shearlings from our joint venture with Innovis, with these averaging £763.76. New Zealand Suffolk ram lambs also sold well, averaging £618.55.”
On the cattle front the pedigree herds are also complimented by a 60-cow commercial herd, with all progeny either finished on-farm or retained for breeding.
“At the moment we sell the best of our bulls at the Stirling bull sales, with a number also sold privately from home. The long-term plan will probably include an on-farm bull sale, but I am not sure yet what sort of numbers we need before we go down that road.”
Both cattle and sheep management is focused on commercial success, with all cows out-wintered on barley stubbles and the ewes overwintered on stubble turnips. “This helps reduce our wintering and feed costs significantly and keeps the stock in good health too.
“It also has the added bonus of putting a good amount of nutrition back in to our soils which benefits the following arable and grass crops.”
The commercial sheep enterprise is split across three holdings, with 1,500 commercial ewes farmed at Fearn Farm itself. These are largely Texel crosses, with 1,100 of them being ewes and a further 400 ewe lambs tupped each year too.
A further 1,200 ewes are run at Nigg, a locally-rented holding and these are a cross-bred flock tupped with home-bred Texel and Suffolk tups. A little further away across at another rented block, 1,350 Cheviot and Shetland Cheviot ewes are run on a low-input system.
These ewes are lambed outside, with a nucleus flock bred pure and the remainder served to Aberfield sires and draft ewes tupped by New Zealand Suffolks.
“The three flocks are quite different, but compliment each other well, giving a balanced and even flow of prime lambs throughout the year, helping with both cashflow and workload.
“A large number of cross-bred ewes are also used for embryo transfer work as embryo recipients, with up to 700 embryos implanted each year from both the New Zealand Suffolk flock and also the recently added Aberfield flock, with the Aberfield flock founded entirely on ET work.”
To some it may seem an eclectic mix of breeds and systems, says John. “But having this variety works well and helps maximise the output from the mix of land we have.
“It also gives us strength in depth when it comes to marketing both breeding and prime stock and ensures we can capitalise on any opportunity.”
A clear focus of the breeding strategy is based around increased efficiency and EBVs are playing a crucial role in helping the family produce better stock, with the Texel flock making notable improvements since first being recorded 15 years ago.
“I am a firm believer in the benefits of performance recording in identifying key traits which can’t be measured by eye alone.
“The Texel flock has been a passion of mine for most of my adult life and the improvements we have been able to achieve here have helped reaffirm my belief in performance recording.”
The cattle enterprise isn’t standing still either, with recent years witnessing the importation of new Beef Shorthorn genetics from New Zealand.
“This has been an exciting development and has helped bring much valued new blood in to the herd.”
And with the next generation of Scotts keen to develop the farm further, John’s eldest son James is already in charge of the 35-ewe Beltex flock. “I think it is important to engage the next generation as early as possible and include them in the decision-making process.
“I was very lucky my father had faith in me and allowed me an input in to buying decisions from an early stage in my farming career and I want my children to have the opportunity to farm should they want to.”
This strong desire to include all generations in the decision-making process and develop the business further is rooted in the family’s overall outlook on farming which is based around being tenants of the land for a generation.
“As much as we are owner occupiers of a large portion of the land we farm I firmly believe we have a responsibility to hand it on to the next generation in as good if not better condition than we received it.”
Sitting alongside the extensive sheep and cattle interests on the farm are more than 202 hectares (500 acres) of arable ground, with the focus of this the growing of 142ha (350 acres) of spring barley for high quality malting barley for the local whisky industry.
An additional 32ha (80 acres) of winter barley are grown to produce feed barley, while 32ha (80 acres) is let each year for potato production. This winter barley is followed by stubble turnips which provide winter forage for the sheep flocks and an entry for the spring barley crops.
Outwith the day-to-day farming, John and his family also open the farm up to events regularly and earlier this year hosted the World Sheepdog trials which was won by Caithness handler Michael Shearer.
“This was a special moment for us as Michael was a close friend of Fiona’s late father and it meant a lot to us to see him win here at Fearn,” adds John.
The farm also featured on the BBC’s Lambing Live this spring, with John keen to improve the public’s understanding of how their food reaches their plate.
“Consumer education is vital to the future of UK farming. We have a great consumer base on our doorstep and must engage with them at every opportunity.”