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Monitoring the mud

A WIDE range of farming topics will be considered over the next three years by the community group of the recently launched Forth Monitor Farm – but top of the agenda will be coping with high rainfall.

Monitor farmers the McEwans of Arnprior farm
Monitor farmers the McEwans of Arnprior farm

The McEwen family, Duncan senior and junior and their wives, Anne and Rebecca, of Arnprior Farm to the west of Stirling, hosted their first Quality Meat Scotland monitor farm meeting in early November.

Their initial meeting centred on a farm tour to enable the community group to view the majority of the Arnprior farmland, which ranges in altitude from 30 feet above sea level on the Carse, to a peak of 590 feet on the hill, classified as 'lowland heath'. The group were also shown the 70 head suckler herd and sheep from the breeding flock of 550 females.

At the second meeting held in early December, the McEwens outlined particular aspects of their farming enterprise which they will ask the community group to consider during their monitor farm term – and the implications of Scotland's changing weather patterns was very much on their minds.

Heavy rainfall has created significant challenges to many farmers throughout Scotland, not least the McEwens, as Duncan senior explained: "The weather has a huge impact on us here, it dictates everything. For every mile west of Stirling, annual rainfall increases by an inch and we're currently averaging around 55 to 60 inches."

Recent weather figures show Stirling's 2012 rainfall, as of December 8, being 42.83 inches – whereas the 1934 edition of 'Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland' gives Stirling's 1933 total rainfall as 26.18 inches.

A straight comparison of those figures (with 23 days still to go in 2012) reveals an increase in rainfall for Stirling over the last 79 years of approximately 65%.

So that heavy rainfall has influenced some of the topics planned for future Forth monitor farm meetings, which will include:

- Fertility issues in the suckler herd and breeding flock. The ewes are currently scanning at between 190 and 210%, but weaning around 170%;

- Grassland productivity, including consideration of alternative forage crops, for example, chicory and plantain;

- Grazing system options, for example, rotational, continuous and mob-stocking;

- Management of the low-lying Carse land which is currently too water-logged to cultivate;

- Soil structure, health and productivity. Arnprior Farm has a range of soil types, including gravel loam, peaty moss and blue clay. Much of the farm is classified Less Favoured Area;

- Diversification opportunities – as the farm straddles the A811, the main Stirling to Loch Lomond road;

- Performance of the beef enterprise. Other than retained replacement heifers all progeny are finished. The McEwens electronically identify their cattle and monitor finishing cattle performance by weighing at turn out and re-housing. The daily liveweight gains of cattle at grass for 2011 and 2012 have been disappointing;

Stock are treated for liver fluke – however, following lamb deaths earlier this year, the McEwens suspect that there are flukicide resistant fluke on their farm.

Abattoirs condemn fluke damaged livers. Their experiences confirm that the incidence of fluke has increased considerably in recent years. Government figures for the UK show that currently 1.34 million sheep and cattle livers are being condemned annually, costing the industry over £28 million.

It is planned to focus on liver fluke along with other internal parasites at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January. Prior to this meeting, faecal samples for analysis will be taken from the Arnprior stock, to provide an indication of the type and level of internal parasites.

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