After success on their first visit to Agri-Expo last year, Craig and Katreen Malone are preparing to take to the ring once again at this year’s fixture. Erika Hay reports...
Producing high-end commercial stock for the sale ring has proved to be the key to success for new entrant farmers Craig and Katreen Malone, Pitcairn Farm, Cardenden, Fife.
Forestry Commission tenants on a 10-year lease, the pair are now at the end of their seventh year at Pitcairn, which spans more than 100 hectares (250 acres) and supports about 200-head of cattle and a flock of 600 Blackface ewes.
Explaining their cattle system, Mr Malone says: “We buy yearling heifers, bull them and calve them, before selling them on as a breeding unit.
“We are doing all the hard work, but our customers appreciate getting a proven breeding female with the bonus of a top quality calf.”
Before moving to Pitcairn, Mr Malone worked with David Dick’s Ronick herd at Stirling, before going self-employed, during which time he worked for commercial calf producer George McFadzean, at Perth, and spent time and money building numbers, which he kept in rented sheds and on summer grass lets.
He had about 50 heifers before moving to the farm, with about 200 now kept on the unit at any one time.
Their system sees yearling black Limousin and British Blue cross heifers bought-in from Orkney to the north of England, which are bulled with either of his Limousin stock bulls, a Ronick-bred bull and a Rossignol son.
AI selected sires from Genus, Chytodden Connon and Lodge Hamlet, are also used.
Explaining their calving pattern, Mrs Malone says: “Bulls go out for nine weeks so we can try to keep the calving periods as tight as possible.
“We calve in February and March for the May sales, and again in July and August for the October sales, and want calves at the right age. The paperwork for a flying herd such as this is horrendous, but the rewards are high.”
In May 2018, they sold 62 heifers with calves at foot to average £3,100 at Caledonian Marts and achieved a new record price of £7,100.
This spring, 44 heifers sold to average £3,280 with a top of £7,000 at Carlisle for one which went to Gary Bell at Lockerbie.
Currently in the middle of autumn sales, prices are back a bit, but demand is there for quality breeding cattle and potential show calves and they have already sold a batch, including one which was champion for £3,200 at United Auctions.
Showing is something they are both keen on, but with their 19-month-old daughter Alba, together with a busy workload on the farm and Mrs Malone’s parttime job off the farm at nearby Cameron and Greig Vets, it is only in the last couple of years that the pair have had the time or money to enjoy exhibiting at shows again.
At their first visit to Agri-Expo last year, Mr Malone judged the baby beef classes, while Mrs Malone showed Prince Harry, a red Limousin cross steer bred by Shona Laird, to first place before it went on to take the reserve overall championship at Livescot 2018, where it later sold for £2,200.
This year they have entered a black heifer known as She’s A Belter, by Chytodden Connon and bred by David Erskine, Carluke.
She’s A Belter has already had a successful show career, taking overall commercial calf champion at Livescot last year, followed by reserve overall calf at the Royal Welsh Winter Fair and reserve female champion at the Royal Highland Show.
While the cattle are undoubtedly Mr Malone’s first love, he explains that with a lot of money tied up in them at any one time, the sheep enterprise at Pitcairn also has an important role in providing an income through the year.
The farm originally ran to 200ha (500 acres) when the pair moved to the farm in October 2015, half of that was destined for tree planting.
With most of the lower ground in cereal and potato production at that time, 150 four-crop Blackface ewes were purchased at Oban to graze the upper slopes before planting began.
“We bought draft Blackface ewes because we could afford them, but now we buy them every year because we discovered how easy they are to keep and how profitable they can be,” Mr Malone says.
“Our original business plan was to retain the Scotch Mule ewe lambs and build up a flock of breeding ewes to cross with a terminal sire, but we soon realised the value of the Blackface ewe as a mother to produce top quality Mule lambs for sale and we changed our plans to continue with a flying flock.”
As start-up farmers with no subsidy entitlement, everything the pair did in the early days was about bringing in regular cashflow.
They found it too expensive to continue with the arable side and paying for contractors to do all the work and being more livestock-minded anyway, gradually sowed more of the farm into grass leys.
Some of the land continued to be rented out for potatoes for the rental income in the first couple of years, but now the whole farm is in grass.
The farm now carries 600 Blackface ewes, about three-quarters of which are four or five crop and the remainder gimmers.
Mrs Malone also runs a flock of 12 crossing type Bluefaced Leicesters, from which tups are bred to use on the Blackfaces. These are used as ram lambs, with the shearlings sold at Stirling under the Saltire prefix.
Reducing breeding and finishing stock numbers in autumn means the pair can buy about 1,500 store lambs to finish over the winter, and they recently took on 65ha (160 acres) of rented ground which has relieved pressure on the grazing at Pitcairn.
The Malones have established a viable farm business from scratch at Pitcairn and have worked hard at getting the farm the way they want it.
And, while they are grateful for the opportunity afforded them by the Forestry Commission, they will be sad to leave in three years.
They are, however, optimistic that another opportunity will arise over the next year or two to allow them to keep their business going.