Ensuring his mixed farm provides a sustainable future, Donald Ross looks over many successful years for his award-winning farm.
Erika Hay reports...
Attention to detail across both livestock and arable enterprises, combined with benchmarking and co-operation, is the key to recent awards won by Easter Ross farmer Donald Ross, Rhynie, Tain.
Success in the Yield Enhancement Netwok (YEN) awards for the last two years and winning the Scottish Arable Farm of the Year at AgriScot in 2018 were the icing on the cake for Donald, who with his father, George, and wife, Karen, constantly strives to improve soil health, quality and yield from the 283 hectare (700-acre) family farm.
Donald is the fifth generation to farm Rhynie, which carries 100 suckler cows and 250 breeding ewes alongside the 162ha (400 acres) of arable, and about 40ha (99 acres) of woodland and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
He also rents 26ha (64 acres) of summer grazing near Dornoch for bulling heifers and gimmers.
It is often said that the Black Isle and Easter Ross have their own micro-climate, with productive soils and clement weather meaning the area produces some of the finest malting barley and potato crops in the country.
Rhynie, however, sits about 100ft above the Moray Firth, and is a mixture of Less Favoured Areas and good, ploughable sandy loam over old red sandstone. Rainfall is normally 650-700mm per year, but was only 520mm last year.
Donald says: “We need to carry stock here as about 50ha are unploughable and we also need the muck for some of the lighter soils.”
On the arable land he manages a rotation around winter wheat with spring barley, spring oats, oilseed rape and potatoes all featuring.
One of the challenges Donald faces, though, is evening out the fields. He started soil sampling in 1998, but it was not until 2006 that his lime spreading contractor got a variable rate spreader, but the pH balance is now pretty level throughout the farm.
Phosphate and potassium are not precision spread, but Donald monitors it carefully.
“I have also been testing for micro-nutrient deficiencies for the last five years,” he says.
“I discovered that magnesium levels were very high, but calcium low, because I was using Maglime. Now I use Cal-lime, and they have started to level out.
“This year I am trying some foliar testing through the YEN programme and will see what comes out of that, although I have some reservations that by the time the result comes back in seven days, that leaf stage will have passed.”
Donald’s first entry into the YEN competition was a field of winter wheat in 2016. He got into the top 10 for yield potential in the first year, but found it a lot of work and stress at harvest, because every load had to be driven to a weighbridge and recorded.
Once Donald discovered that a minimum of 2ha (five acres) was required for a YEN entry, he entered again in 2017 with a smaller area of Viscount winter wheat, which won the overall gold award for the UK, for the best percentage of potential yield (83 per cent of 17.8 tonnes/ha or 7t/acre).
He also received a silver award for best field yield for the same crop which yielded 14.8t/ha (6t/acre).
He says: “The field did not get any particular attention, but it was after potatoes, and I sowed it in good conditions at 375 seeds per sq.metre. It also received 210kg of nitrogen.
“I think the key for the crop is to develop a good root structure and to be vigilant in keeping as much green leaf as possible.
“Of course, weather conditions are critical to achieve great yields and 2017 was a long, cool, cloudy summer, which was great for us growing wheat.
“It is also important to harvest it at the right time, so no bushel weight is lost. That crop measured 78kg per hectolitre.”
Last year was a different story with the long, hot summer, so Donald was surprised when he got the silver YEN for yield potential of 98 per cent achieving 10.8t/ha (4.3t/acre) with a field of Zulu.
A member of the YEN Highland Group and vice-chairman of the Scottish group, Donald reckons being part of the process has given him more knowledge and says it is good to share ideas and dig holes in other members’ crops.
It was this knowledge of his soils and agronomy that impressed the judges and led him to winning Scottish Arable Farm of the Year last year, which was presented at AgriScot in November 2018.
One of the judges said: “Donald pushes himself to improve and has a good handle on his costs through benchmarking, which helps him to keep his costs down without any detrimental impact on his yield or business.
“He is also a tremendous ambassador for the industry, both locally and nationally.”
Donald credits Scottish Agronomy with much of his success.
He has been a member of the co-operative for 20 years and is currently on the board.
He says: “A lot of what we do comes from feedback from Scottish Agronomy trials.
“We feel we have a better technical ability thanks to their advice and, over the years, we have made significant savings in crop inputs.”
Co-operation is something Donald is very keen on and he has recently retired following six years as chairman of Highland Grain. Based just outside Inverness, this 90-strong farmer marketing group, specialising in malting barley, handles up to 45,000t per year, supplying four major maltsters.
All his own barley is sold through Highland Grain, while the rest of the cereals are marketed through Scotgrain, Frontier and Grainco.
Donald says that the decision of Invergordon distillery to switch from locally grown wheat to French maize about four years ago has impacted badly on his business.
He says: “We used to get a premium of £8-£10/t for our wheat to the distillery and haulage costs were minimal.
“Now, I try to sell as much as possible to a local pig farmer, Dennis Bridgeford, but the rest goes to Diageo at Cameron Bridge. I reckon we can be £20/t worse off now.”
Some of his barley and oats are fed to cattle. Using Simmental and Angus bulls for replacement heifers, he also uses a Charolais as a terminal sire.
All the male calves are finished at 12 to 14 months at 400-420kg deadweight on a bull beef system with home-grown cereals and rapeseed pellets, which are a by-product of the locally produced Cullisse Rapeseed Oil.
Donald cuts about 6ha (15 acres) of grass three times for silage and 8ha (20 acres) of Ecological Focus Area once to feed cows, which are in-wintered.
They also receive draff from the local Glenmorangie and Balblair distilleries.
He has recently invested in a new shed for the heifers as he has increased cow numbers by 20 and plans to increase by a further 20.
He says: “It was a big investment, but we need cows here to graze the unploughable land and to provide muck for arable. The new shed with bull pens makes handling easier when I have to manage them by myself.”
His father George is responsible for the sheep flock, which lambs in May, with lambs sold store the last couple of years to free up grass for ewes.
Karen does the bookwork for the farm and is also responsible for the nine tenanted cottages, while the couple’s three children, Fraser, Isla and Alasdair, are still at school. Fraser is showing a real interest in the farm, though, and helps out at busy times.
Because Donald is involved in every facet of the farm business, he has real control over costs and he knows value can be added through his mix of cattle, sheep and arable.
He therefore feels he is reasonably placed to cope with whatever the future holds. His biggest fear after Brexit is inflation, when the whole country will suffer.
He has tried to protect himself by buying enough fertiliser to see him through to 2020 and has also sold half his 2019 wheat crop and 100t of the 2020 crop.
But, as he says: “Brexit is a bit like soil – the more information you have, the less you know.”