First Experiences Farming
A family friend (Donald Mackenzie) who had been farming here until our return had used his own equipment because all the stock and machinery had been sold following Kenny’s death. He chose for us, twelve cows and calves, forty-four aged cheviot ewes and a Border Leicester ram, together with one hundred round bales of hay and straw for feeding/bedding the cattle.Donald passed over to us half of the land in barley which was undersown with grass. Later we were to discover that the barley crop was “Golden Promise” being grown for Macallan’s malt whisky.Tragically, Donald died in April 1999 at the age of 38 leaving a wife and two young children. As a minor consequence we were uncertain of how to proceed. Our lambing was in full swing and we were fortunate that Donald’s uncle DD Forsyth who had been a regular visitor with Donald, continued to help and guide us throughout that period. There then followed an uncertain period when our good neighbours – Hugh, Davie and Roddy MacCulloch in the adjoining Logie Farm helped us with advice and in practical ways by lending machinery and doing much of the work for us with their own tractor and implements.
An early embarrassment occurred when Geoff Norrie, an officer with the Animal Health Division of SEERAD, arrived here to take a blood sample from one of our cows. We had no idea what this entailed and consequently had no facilities to do so. However, with Geoff’s expert and adroit handling we succeeded in restraining her against a fence with her nose in a bucket of nuts while the sample was taken (cattle, and sheep, will do anything for nuts).About this time we met Rod McIver, a retired farm manager, now living in Conon Bridge. Rod’s help has been invaluable both in terms of advice and practical assistance with difficult calvings and on any occasion where we have to pen and handle cattle. Without his help and that of Hugh and Roddy McCulloch, not to mention Allan Macmillan, we would find things very difficult.
Working the land and transport
Quickly we realised that we had to buy a tractor with a loader for carrying big bales. A visit to a farm sale secured a Massey Ferguson 290 for £4000 and later we acquired a loader, a fork and a bucket for the tractor.Donald made much use of a farming contractor (Colin Gill) and we secured his services then (and still use him) for ploughing, cultivating, sowing and baling. Meanwhile we bought several items at farm sales some of which failed to last the course – why they were being sold no doubt!
We have now several new and almost new pieces of machinery. In 2004 we changed tractors buying a relatively new Renault Ares 540RX with only 3000 hours of work behind it which Neil had seen on the internet advertised by John Bownes & Son, Winsford, Cheshire. They also took the Massey in part exchange.We drive a Toyota pick-up for running about because Pat objected to travelling in a box on the tractor in cold weather (it’s been a very useful acquisition). In 2005, we traded-in our Ifor Williams livestock trailer (itself bought to replace another one bought at a farm sale) for a new one.
We were fortunate that there was in place an old sheep handling system used by Pat’s father which we were able to make serviceable by renewing gates and rails. However, we were forced to buy cattle and sheep hurdles (gates) for handling livestock, weighing crates, a shedder, footbath, feed rings and haikes and a cattle crate.For the tractor we have a general pupose tipping trailer and a bale trailer, a topper, a fertiliser spreader, a couple of mowers (of sorts), a transport box for goods and animals, a land leveller and various attachments for the loader. A heavy roller has recently joined the collection having been delivered in Spring 2006.When he was living here, Iain attended night school at Inverness College and is now an accomplished weldor. Ably assisted by Neil, particularly with a practical input into design, he has fabricated many of our implements and accessories including the transport box, the land leveller and various attachments for the loader.
The buildings were old, consisting of a barn, cattle fold and turnip shed; a silo; a shed for storing grain and for bruising it before feeding; and attached to that shed, one of the original croft sheds for housing animals (they shared a fireplace so it must at one stage have been a house and shed together); There were also two “nissen” sheds one of which was a workshop and the other providing more animal housing; and, another building extension used for animal housing.Part of one of the nissen sheds blew down in a gale just before our arrival and the workshop had to make way for our extension to the house. A wood shed and dog kennel were replaced by new buildings in which there is a workshop/garage and a general purpose shed.
The electrics were old and had to be replaced which we did by re-routing the supply from the new extension. We also re-wired the old house when we discovered that electricians employed in the past to re-wire had only replaced the front covers with new cables joined on to the original wires.In 2003/4, we put up a new livestock building, half of which houses the cattle in the winter and they come and go when they wish; the other half is for storing hay. In the spring time the storage section becomes a lambing shed and, later, it serves as a shearing and general penning area to guarantee that the sheep remain dry.
Health and Welfare
Foot & Mouth Disease
In 2001, though we were not directly affected by foot and mouth, we were subject to stringent movement directions and had to implement strict bio-security measures. The greatest impact of course was that we were unable to buy or sell stock and there was great uncertainty about whether the method of selling through an auction mart would survive. We decided that if we were forced to slaughter our cattle and sheep we would not re-stock.The local Auction Martin Dingwall remained very positive throughout, in particular retaining its staff to wash and clean their facilities to the highest possible standard, though they had no throughput of animals.
On 12 September 2001 we were able to put the first of our animals to market, selling sixty lambs through the “store” ring (though we can sell privately, we sell animals through two methods at the auction mart: the store sale is where they are bought by people who intend to retain them for breeding the following year, or to feed them until they reach the second stage, viz the prime sale where they are sold through the ring to butchers and meat wholesellers because they have achieved the desired weight and condition for their purposes. Though it was to be expected, everybody was disappointed with the prices being achieved.
In 2001 we joined the Quality Meat Scotlandassurance schemes for cattle and sheep. This means that we, the farm and the animals all have to meet the standards set by QMS. The purpose is that buyers of our livestock can be assured that we have practised high standards of animal health and welfare, that we have in place a system for identifying and treating animals which are ill, that we have formal plans in place with our local veterinary practice, that the farm environment is healthy, that we observe waste management rules, that we source food only from a similarly assured outlet and that we have available suitable transport. Each year we are inspected to make sure that we achieve the Farm Assured standards.
Highlands and Islands Sheep Health Association(HISHA)
Though we were aware that the original sheep bought for us were “accredited” we were not exactly sure what that meant. We learned later of course that it meant that the flocks from which they had been sourced had been tested and were free from the highly contagious disease “enzootic abortion of ewes” (EAE).The scheme is part of the Sheep and Goat Heath Schemes administered by the Scottish Agricultural College base in Inverness in collaboration with local veterinary practices. The rules are the same as those of the Premium Health Scheme run by the SAC in other parts of the country.
We continued to buy our replacements only from EAE accredited flocks but were slightly reluctant to join ourselves since it involved yet another cost. Another drawback was that we would have to buy female sheep only from EAE flocks (as we were later to discover this can be quite restrictive.)Willie and Heather Stewart, neighbours and friends, who been advising and providing hands-on lambing assistance were members of HISHA and Heather is the local secretary. I suppose it was inevitable that we would join and did so in 2004.One of the vets from Conanvet, Ardlair, Conon Bridge attended, took blood samples from a proportion of ewes and then submitted them to the laboratory at the Veterinary Division of the SAC. In 2004 we were able to sell our lambs under a “supervised” label which applies for the first year of membership. In 2005, further negative samples were taken meaning that we were able to sell fully accredited sheep for the first time.
Land Management Contract
In 2005, as part of the government’s single farm payment scheme operated and run for us by the Scottish Executive, we agreed to enter into a land management contract (you may have read of the scheme which offers farmers a payment if they revert to the method of cutting and storing hay by “binder” which was practised once upon a time before being superseded by efficient methods using machinery.)The section that we thought meaningful related to animal health and welfare. We were visited by Graeme Swanson, a partner at Conanvet, who drew up a plan for us to follow in relation to:
- treatment guidance and advice, preventative medicine, vaccine programme
- performance indicators to benchmark ourselves against other farms
- a biosecurity plan, and
- sampling to identify possible disease problems
HI Health (Highland & Islands Cattle Health Scheme)
As part of the Land Management Contract we joined this scheme which was first established in 1999. It is administered and promoted by Orkney Livestock Association and was established to pioneer a cattle health scheme but now includes sheep. Currently, it is said to be the largest health scheme of its kind in the UK.
Having joined various schemes to obtain subsidy payments which were critical to our existence, we were obliged to keep an agreed number of cattle. As we anticipated, we were subject to many inspections during the early years the first of which we find amusing to this day. Two inspectors arrived at the farm (one to inspect the stock and another to inspect the first inspector) and announced to Pat that they wished to check the cattle numbers. Helpfully, she suggested that would not be a problem since the cattle were gathered at a feed ring in an adjoining field. They were incredulous! Their task could only be completed by running the cattle through a race and into a cattle crush or crate which would secure their heads while the inspector noted their ear-tag numbers. We, of course, had none of these things available and we had to schedule another appointment by which time we would have been able to borrow the necessary equipment.
Each year (but one) we kept two of our heifers as replacements for the original cows. To allow us to age animals easily, Pat has given them names starting with letters for the year (apart from those where circumstances suggested other names would be more appropriate – hardly scientific): remaining so far, we have Amy and Amber in 1998, Moneypenny whose number is 007 as in Bond, Catriona, (no Ds), Ellie and Eva, Freya and F (on the theme of Bond again, being a daughter of Moneypenny), Grace and Precious – so named only because her mother found her so).Missing from the list are:
- Young Bindal who we were forced to cull in 2005. We had bought her as a calf along with her mother at a farm dispersal sale. She was an excellent animal in terms of appearance, calving ease, quality of off-spring and temperament but, out of the blue, we received a letter from the Scottish Executive to tell us that she would have to be slaughtered. Seemingly a calf brought up on the same holding at the same time as this cow when she was a calf, subsequently developed the dreaded BSE. Young Bindal’s mother was considered safe as were Young Bindal’s calves. Though the logic defies me, you may feel as we do, that it may have something to do with the fact that this is a procedure adopted in other European countries and we are seeking to re-enter the European market. Anyway, we still have her mother, her daughter and two of her half-sisters each of which is an excellent specimen.
- Camilla was sold at the first available sale for “over 30 month” animals born after 1996 and with effect from 7 November declared unlikely to be afflicted with BSE (after slaughter they will be tested to ensure that they are free). What had been happening was that animals over thirty months old were not allowed into the food chain. Older animals, if they have a calf, can be sold to other farmers for breeding but if they were to be slaughtered they had to be disposed of by a special scheme. Camilla did not carry a calf, but she was a young, well-built animal and we were reluctant to dispose of her by incineration. She did nothing in return for the food we provided so we were quite pleased to see her go.
We only have one of the original cows left (Panda) The other two older ones, Bindal and No 20, were bought afterwards.
We do not own a bull, preferring instead to have one here for a short time until all the cows have been “served” (mated) and then returning him from whence he came. We have been fortunate to secure very good quality animals.Our first bull was a limousin from the Isle of Lewis, then we had a simmental from Donald Mackenzie, Rychraggan, by Drumnadrochit. We followed that with limousins on two successive years from Dennis Fraser, Achvaich, by Beauly and for the last two years “Roger”, a limousin from Robert McCall, Foindle, Sutherland has been our guest. We shall have to change Roger next year since his off-spring will be ready for mating.
Obviously we arrange for the calving to take place over as short a period as possible so we were disappointed to discover when we arrived that another bull had paid an unscheduled input to our herd. Shortly after we arrived here, we found a Simmental bull belonging to Hugh McCulloch in with our cows. We had no idea at the time if he caught one or more but discovered later that he had indeed caught several. He was either there for some time unnoticed by his owner, or he was very active indeed!
Starting off (we had no thought ourselves of keeping breeding sheep) with the 44 ewes and a Border Leicester ram (Pat named him Dorian) we got off to a less than brilliant first lambing. Not knowing that the description of the ewes as “cast ewes” only meant that the previous owner was selling them on in good condition, we feared that we had inherited someone else’s rejects. The weather was atrocious with snow and rain. We ended up with 57 lambs and had to sell eight of the ewes because they were found not to be in lamb.Early in the lambing at 5am we discovered a ewe with a bag of sorts hanging out. We thought it was a prolapse and had no idea what to do. As directed, we spoke to Donald who made us his first port of call. He did not know what it was either and instructed Pat to phone the vet to say we were taking a sheep to the surgery. Reluctantly she did so and spoke to Hamish Robertson who said he would be at the surgery without delay (our first experience of this incredible service that they provide.) Unfortunately, the sheep had cast her bladder and Hamish was forced to deliver twin lambs by Caeserian operation; the ewe could not survive so we had our first pet lambs – Donaldina named after Donald and Davidina after his uncle DD.We kept seven of the lambs – including Donaldina and Davidina, Vanessa and Robson (sold with the others in the autumn) who were the pets. In October of 1999, we bought 21 replacement cheviot gimmers (eighteen month old sheep ready for their first mating) from Alistair Jack, Kilcoy, and Messrs Mackay from Glaick and Ardmore. By this time we realised that we had a product which was recognised as a good breeding animal a “Scottish Halfbred” which, of course, was why we were given them in the first place.On the advice of our Aldie Fraser, our postman and a crofter, we arranged for the ewes to be scanned in January 2000 by John Urquhart from Lochluichart. John scans sheep, and cattle, throughout north and west Scotland. The scan on 21 January 2000 revealed that we should have 20 singles, 24 twins and 2 sets of triplets.
This year we had an improved lambing rate @ 71 lambs for 49 ewes but we again began the lambing in the snow. We had created mothering pens, but were finding it difficult to catch the ewes and lambs particularly at night. This was made worse by the fact that we did not have a dog. Once again we raised a pet lamb (Sophie) which was found by Neil having been abandoned by its mother. Again all odds it survived after a period at the kitchen stove. It was difficult to raise her on her own so we were on the look out for another from someone who had an unwanted lamb. Murdo Macrae from Applecross arrived with Hamish, a beautiful blackface wedder (castrated male) which made an ideal companion (he was also the cause for our buying blackface ewes).On 10 July, we discovered that Dorian was ill, appearing to be paralysed at his rear. We took him to the vet who could not find anything wrong, but he died soon afterwards. We were learning that sheep are inclined to pop off by the time you realise that they are ill. In the autumn of 2000 we bought two Suffolk tups (rams) from Kenneth Gill, Easter Templands and James & Iain Macpherson, Lairgandour at Dingwall Mart to put with our half bred ewes and cheviots (56 in total).Scanning on 19 January 2001 indicated that we would have 18 singles, 34 twins and 2 sets of triplets. In the event we reared 82 lambs, but this was the year of foot & mouth disease which made everything very difficult. In October we bought Lynne the dog. Later this year we sold 26 of our original ewes because they were becoming old and thin. Nevertheless, we put 56 ewes to the tups again and on 19 January 2002, they were scanned revealing 15 singles, 40 twins and 1 set of triplets. This year 89 lambs reared in total.
January was when Pat succumbed to Hamish’s charms and we bought eight blackface hoggs from MacIntyre, Tulloch Farm, Dingwall. On 23rd October we bought a Blue Face Leicester ram from E. Mackenzie, Forgue at Huntly Auction Mart so that we could put him with the Blackface ewes, the product being a Scotch Mule. He was three shear (three year old) when we bought him and he had not been sheared that year so he was resplendent in Rastafarian type dreadlocks. It is said that all sheep like to die but that a Blue Face Leicester prefers it more than most. Their wool is thin and open leaving them very vulnerable to bad weather.We also bought a Border Leicester ram as a replacement for Dorian (remember, to get Scottish halfbreds) from Willie and Heather Stewart. They were intending to sell him in any event. The poor fellow was hounded relentlessly by Huntly who was intent on killing him. Huntly was much more subtle than charging head-to-head, as rams usually do, preferring to strike him on his hip to make him fall over.We put 54 ewes and gimmers (18 months old) to the tups and, on 18 January 2003 when they were scanned, we discovered 15 singles, 39 twins and 5 sets of triplets. Six of the ewes were empty and were sold in January; and we sold the Border Leicester ram in May. Earlier, in January, we sold the Suffolk tup which we had bought from Templands.We managed the lambing better this year, taking them in overnight as they became due. Since the available shed could only accommodate a limited number, we changed the raddle on the tups every week (a colour on their chest which marks the ewes as they are served). By so doing, we knew those expecting lambs imminently and took them inside first. We check them every two hours throughout the night so a quick dash and look in the shed took little time and it was easy to put newly lambed groups in a pen. A walk round a field with a torch in the dead of night, followed by a swoop with tractor and transport box to catch and pen was wholly different. 105 lambs were reared this year. Of the five sets of triplets, four survived intact.In May we sold 20 suffolk cross ewe hogs (one year old) when they fetched £70 which was very good indeed. On 11 May, the remaining Suffolk tup from Lairgandour became ill and we had to protect him from Huntly who was anxious to dispense with him since he was showing signs of weakness. We penned him for several days and we were very relieved that he recovered.
We now had some lovely Suffolk cross halfbred ewes and wanted to put them to a good finishing tup. At Dingwall Auction Mart on 27 September we bought a handsome Texel shearling from Tom Morrison, Easter Urray, Muir of Ord. Bill was a pet. When we anxiously took him towards a fence separating him from the other tups we thought we would have to spend some time integrating him. Bill was not interested, however, preferring to leave his fellow tups behind and accompany us on the look out for food.In October, we bought yet more Blackface sheep from Murdo Macrae, Camusterrach, Applecross (who had supplied Hamish) so Huntly, the Blue Face would have something worthwhile to do; in fact we put a couple of cheviots with him also to see what the ensuing cheviot mules would look like. On 1 November 2003, we put 83 ewes and gimmers to the tups and scanning on 19 January 2004 revealed 21 singles, 47 twins and 13 sets of triplets; 3 were empty and were sold in February. Given his previous illness, we decided that it would be wise to sell the suffolk tup and did so in January. 138 lambs reared this year including three which we could not foster and which, of course became pets with names, ie. Two mules, Jennifer and Lisa and a suffolk cross called Beth.In May, we sold the suffolk cross halfbred lambs for £60, the best price on the day. On 30 June, the vet attended to take blood samples in furtherance of our application to join HISHA.Because of the withdrawal period after dipping, we had to wait until 7 September before selling any prime lambs (average £52.21) Pat was now hankering after a new breed of sheep for us – a Lleyn, from the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales. Off we headed to Perth Auction Mart on 14 September where we purchased five gimmers for a not inconsiderable sum – they’ll need to do well! – from Debbie and Neil MacGowan, Alyth, Blairgowrie. Debbie is the promotions consultant for the Lleyn Society. The Lleyns are supposed to be super hardy, prolific breeders and eat very little. We were still keen to maintain out halfbred flock so off we went to Thainstone, Inverurie in September and purchased a tup lamb (few shearlings being available) which would manage a small number of ewes. Fraser came from John Bell and Sally Guild’s flock from Knowsie, Fraserburgh.On 30 September we bought a further 8 cheviot gimmers from Edward Mackay, Brora and, on 7 October, sold 12 of the cheviot ewes purchased the year before because they failed to develop as we wished.On 2 October at Dingwall we bought a replacement suffolk tup from the same source as our previous one, Macpherson, Lairgandour. This year 110 ewes and gimmers went to the tups and scanning on 15 January 2005 revealed: 22 singles, 67 twins and 12 sets of triplets, but 9 were empty. We then sold off 5 of the empty ones but kept 4 younger ones which had been gimmers in with Fraser whose performance as a lamb was less than diligent; or, rather he was too diligent since he rejected all approaches from others when he was engaged on business with another. Consequently, he was taking such a long time to cover them all that he had not finished the job when we removed him.
A bad start to lambing. One of the young suffolks aborted her twin lambs on 6 March and died herself shortly afterwards. The foetuses were examined at the laboratory as required under the HISHA scheme when we were wrongly advised by chinese whispers via our vet that she had suffered an enzootic abortion. We were of course devastated and began to plan how we could manage the lambing by keeping separate those animals with which she had been in contact. It would have been difficult, but when we received the official version we found that the original news was wrong and that she had suffered from campylobacter, which can be spread by birds. The lambing progressed quite smoothly thereafter with much needed help from Neil and Iain who took their holidays to assist and Roger and Linda Hoskins who took time out to help when possible; we reared 169 lambs.On the 8th May we submitted the required number of blood samples to the laboratory as required by the HISHA scheme. A negative result meant that we are now fully accredited as free from enzootic abortion in our flock and were able to sell them as such in the autumn. Three pets this year: 2 suffolk crosses, Ruth and Emma and a halfbred who declined to make friends.We were pleased with the product from the Llyens and decided that we should buy a few more and this year put them with a Lleyn tup. Off again to Perth on 13 September when we bought 13 gimmers from Michael Cursiter, Laga Farms, Orkney and a tup from Butcher, Fleets Farm, Skipton in Yorkshire. We had penned him on our return home in a small paddock secured by chicken wire but when Pat went out later to make sure everything was OK, he had disappeared. Yes, he had jumped the fence and was in with the new ewes; coming from Skipton and being a high hurdler of such quality, he is called Skippy.On 21 September we sold our gimmers at the inaugural sale of HISHA accredited animals at Dingwall. We very pleased with the result, fetching best prices in several categories. However, we bought yet more cheviots gimmers – 14 from Lorna Muirden, Grantfield Farm, Nigg for Fraser’s attention later.112 ewes and gimmers have gone to the tups this year. We have hung on to Huntly who is now old at six shear and gave him the cheviots which we bought from Brora last year, including the four missed by Fraser. When we took the tups away from the ewes on 11 December it looks as if he has caught all of them.Scanning in January 2006 will reveal the true picture; afterwards, we will separate them and feed each group differently depending on the number of lambs they are carrying.
We were really struggling without a dog to help us, having to rely on Rod MacIver’s dog Meg to do the rounding up when we had to gather them for any official occasion. If there was no deadline, we completed the job ourselves – eventually! We did feel too old for that lark but it is nigh on impossible at any age without a dog.We were lucky in our choice of dog, both in terms of ability and cost. In October 2001, we spotted a pup being advertised for a very modest sum by Jimmy Simpson, Terryhorn, Huntly so we drove there for a look. There were five pups including one male which he was keeping for himself. When they were let out of their shed the pups, led by what was to become ours, took off and began to round-up a bull which had been grazing some distance away. We decided that she showed particular character and at least was keen to round something up even if it were not sheep.
Jimmy Simspon kindly let us have a copy of a dog-training booklet (and a copy of a book of poetry which he has written in Doric language) but some help was needed. Donnie Mackenzie living on our doorstep at Balvaird in Muir of Ord, is a well known and respected trainer, and he agreed to take on the job of training the dog and me. She turned out fine thanks to Donnie’s patience and skill and is now a very important and valued member of the family.