Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs’ (SAYFC) first Young Farmer of the Year, Andrew Neilson, is keen to look beyond the farm gate to develop the family business so it’s fit for the future, as Aly Balsom reports.
It’s Andrew Neilson’s thirst for knowledge and passion to drive the family business forward that no doubt helped secure him the title of SAYFC’s first Young Farmer of the Year – that and his tree climbing skills.
Andrew was one of six finalists that battled it out at this year’s Royal Highland Show to win the inaugural award.
The assessment was varied, with entrants having to put together a business plan for a hypothetical 202-hectare (500-acre)mixed farm, take part in a farming quiz, negotiate a course with a quad and trailer and erect and take down a stock fence.
A surprise challenge also saw the finalists having to shimmy up an 80-foot tree trunk as fast as possible. At 45 seconds, Andrew was the quickest.
Be it as part of his role in Avondale Young Farmers Club or on the family dairy farm in Lanarkshire, his ability to turn his hand to anything and make the most of every opportunity is a trait which shines through when you talk to the 23-year-old.
Having joined Avondale YFC aged 14, he was on the committee at 16 years old and chairman at 17. At the same time, he’s broadened his knowledge of the industry, spurred on by his father, Hugh.
Andrew says: “My dad’s always been very forward-thinking and I’m very grateful for the opportunities he’s given me.
“I’ve got two older brothers and all of us were told not to come back to the farm unless we had a degree or had learned a trade.”
Hugh’s belief in his sons having something to fall back on, considering the unpredictability of farming, saw Andrew make the decision to study an agricultural engineering course at Barony College after finishing his GSCEs, and complete an agricultural engineering apprenticeship.
However, his spell away from the farm reaffirmed what he wanted.
“Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to milk cows,” he says.
Having returned to the family farm, his father then encouraged him learn from others. Andrew headed to Coopon Carse Farm, Newton Stewart, for five months, where he was mentored by farm manager Alex Robertson.
The high input, output system, in a challenging, wet environment matched that at home and gave Andrew ideas that he brought back to the 350-cow pedigree herd, which yields upwards of 12,000 litres on a Muller Tesco contract.
“It was all about attention to detail, especially with calf rearing,” he explains. “Now we’re managing to calve most heifers at 24 months.”
This has been achieved by implementing a number of practices instigated by Andrew, including upping concentrate feeding rates and putting up a new shed.
His thirst for learning took him to the USA in 2016 as part of an Alta Youth Trip, a move that didn’t just benefit Andrew’s personal development, but the farm too.
“I learnt about people and farming management and management of cows and being as efficient as possible,” he explains. “I came back from Coopon Carse and told my dad what he was doing wrong.
“Then I went to America and came back with a book of things we were doing wrong.”
Cow environment was one area highlighted for improvement, with cubicle dimensions being changed as a result.
But it has been the introduction of standard operating procedures which has been the number one change. Andrew now manages the staff team and has put in place protocols surrounding management of the newborn calf and milking routines.
He has also continued to embrace the family’s love of breeding, with the aim of producing functional, long lasting cows with good health traits which give a lot of milk.
“We’re very passionate about the pedigree side of things,” Andrew says. “We have a big interest in that.
“You’ve got to have other interests. If you’re just in farming to make money, you wouldn’t be in farming. You’ve got to have a passion for something.”
Hugh has always enjoyed showing, and it’s a passion that has been carried on by Andrew. Some of Andrew’s successes include reserve champion at Agriscot last year and champion Holstein at LiveScot. He also shows calves through the Holstein Young Breeders and has done stock judging at The Royal Highland Show since he was 14.
He has also had similar success in the show ring with his own flock of 12 pedigree Texels run under the Brackenridge name. This includes interbreed champion at Strathaven Show and a couple of first prize wins at Lesmahagow Show.
Andrew set up the flock aged 16 with Hugh’s help. His aim is to produce a commercially sound animal with good character –something that proves popular with buyers who can pay around 5,000gns for one of his tups.
Moving forward, Andrew is convinced dairying provides the biggest scope for success, compared to beef, sheep or arable. At the same time, he believes the farm’s high input, high output system is the right one for its location, which makes grazing unpractical.
Formulating a sound business strategy is one of the main things Andrew learned as part of his application for SAYFC Young Farmer of the Year. Half of the points in the final stage of the competition were allocated to how he developed a business plan for a pretend 202ha (500-acre) family farm with 150 dairy cows, 70 beef and 200 sheep in Kinross.
Having looked at the farm’s location and researched options and budgets under the guidance of an RBS manager, Andrew decided diversifying the hypothetical farm, bottling their own milk and opening a shop and cafe would be the best option. He also chose to focus on dairy, install robots and increase yields from 8,000 to 12,000 litres a cow a year.
“The major contributor to the fact farmers aren’t rich is we buy at retail and sell at wholesale,” he explains. “If I can cut out the middle man by setting up my own shop and bottling my own milk, you don’t need to sell a lot to make money.”
The strategy proved effective for the competition farm. However, although the process of business planning and budgeting taught him some useful skills, the exact model is not applicable back home.
Instead, he hopes to make gains by improving areas such as milk from forage and cow fertility.
Looking ahead, Andrew says: “I like to think I’ll be making more milk, cheaper and more efficiently than now. I have a lot of goals in place. I want to get my fertility better and make the business more profitable. It’s about getting that little bit extra out of what you’ve got.”
Together with Brexit, Andrew thinks vegans and vegetarians represent a huge challenge for the future and believes educating them about the good job farmers are doing is essential. Supply chain dynamics are another issue he feels strongly about.
He explains: “The supermarkets have far too much say. They’re almost taking advantage of us.
“It’s probably rich coming from someone with a supermarket contract. But as an industry, we’re really taken advantage of by supermarkets and large food chains.
“The trouble is we’re a small fish in a big pond. It would be great if we could all stand together as one.”