Securing a reasonable net return in any farming business is becoming more and more difficult, particularly for arable farmers who are challenged with poor weather, fluctuating grain prices and increased input costs.

But, for Ross-shire farmer, Mark McCallum, who farms in partnership with his parents and his wife, Ailsa, at St Martins, on the Black Isle, modern technology and attention to detail is certainly paying dividends in his large-scale arable enterprise, with improved efficiency across the board.

Situated in a prime arable area between Culbokie and Cromarty, St Martins was purchased by the McCallums in 1982 and is home to 350 acres of sandy loam which is used entirely for crops and seed potatoes.

When Mark returned home from travelling in 2001, he was keen to increase his workload and started doing contracting out and about, mainly sowing and spraying for local farmers which he still does to this day. The family has also increased acreage over the years and they now farm a further 600 acres of rented ground, as well as 800 acres of contract farmed land.

“The business has been built up over the years and we now do all our own field work, apart from lime spreading,” said Mark, who is NFUS combinable crops representative for the Highland area, as well as chairman of Highland Grain.

“We haven’t had livestock on the farm for 20 years but a lot of farmers have gone out of cattle in this area and there aren't many suckler herds left in this corner of the country. The business employs one full-time member of staff and we also take on two seasonal workers at sowing and harvest time.”

Like the majority of the producers in the north of Scotland, it is spring barley which is the biggest contributor in the business, with a total of 1000 acres grown purely for the malting market. It’s sold at a contract price through Highland Grain – a local co-operative which was established in 1978 and originally called Black Isle Grain Group. The group then merged with Easter Ross Grain Group and became Highland Grain in 1992.

Highland Grain owns and runs its own drying and storage plant, and has increased capacity from 4400 tonnes of malting barley to 40,000 tonnes of dried product, with around 40% of the malting barley produced in the catchment area handled by the group.

“We have been members of the local co-op since 1978, so we have been dealing directly with maltsters and distillers for some time, allowing us to have a better insight into things further up the chain,” commented Mark.

“Highland Grain mainly operates three-year rolling contracts, rather than an annual contract, so there is a guaranteed end market for the members’ grain ... providing it meets the requirements.”

The family also grows 250 acres of winter wheat, 200 acres of oilseed rape, 100 acres of winter barley and 100 acres of winter oats, while 20 acres of ground at St Martins and 70 acres of contract farmed land is let out for seed potatoes.

“Spring barley works well for us here and we are able to grow a large amount of it due to its lower input costs compared to other crops,” said Mark. “We are growing it on earlier maturing ground, so we are able to get it away fairly quickly too. About 80% of the spring barley is Laureate and the rest is Sassy.”

Having relied on Concerto for many years, Mark introduced Laureate to the farm early on in its availability and said it continued to perform very well on the farm, with better spirit yields produced for maltsters and lower brackling when compared to old favourite, Concerto.

The enterprise regularly achieves spring barley yields of 2.75-2.8 tonnes per acre, with winter wheat averaging 4 tonnes per acre.

It’s predominantly the Skyscraper variety that's used for winter wheat production which is then sold locally to Invergordon Distillery, home of Whyte and Mackay whisky.

Gerald winter oats is also grown on the contract farmed land and is sold through GrainCo, while a small acreage of winter barley is grown to allow oilseed rape to be established. It’s sold on a malting contract through Simpsons Malt.

Most of the spring barley is sown within the third and fourth week of March using a 4m Lemken drill, but the family has also recently bought a 4m Vaderstad Spirit, as a result of more acres. In the future, Mark hopes to try direct drilling.

In the last two years, Mark has moved up to 36m tramlines, now operating a Bateman RB35 sprayer, which has helped reduce the number of wheelings and passes, while also covering more acres in a quicker timeframe when working in a short weather window.

Most fertiliser is now applied in liquid format to improve accuracy at field edges and allow for a better uptake during dry weather. Another benefit of the liquid fertiliser is fewer plastic bags around the farm.

The team also operates a Simba Xpress drill which has an ST bar for direct drilling oilseed rape into stubble after spring barley.

“We have been using this drill for the past eight years and it certainly helps speed the operation up as we have a short window to get the oilseed rape into the ground after the barley,” said Mark. “This drill can also sow oilseed rape into chopped straw so it takes a lot of work and time out our hands during the harvest season.”

With no muck produced from livestock on the farm, the business works a straw for muck agreement with local farmers, but Mark did add that this was proving more difficult due to fewer cows being kept in the area and more farmers becoming self-sufficient with straw and keeping muck for use at home.

Most straw is sold in the bout and wheat straw is sold to local contractors for covering carrots.

The family are also members of Scottish Agronomy and have used its expertise to fine-tune its fungicide programme, which aims to move from prescriptive use to reactive use. Mark also sits on a local benchmarking group run by AHDB/SRUC which has given local farmers the chance to discuss and compare arable systems.

Reflecting on last year’s harvest of spring barley, Mark said that yields were very good and quality varied throughout but the prices were the biggest kick in the teeth. “Skinning was a problem for most farmers in the area this past year, so a percentage of contracted malting barley didn’t meet the maltsters’ specifications and ended up in the feed bin,” he said.

“The poor prices were a result of an oversupply in the market due to bumper yields and more spring barley grown in areas where winter crop would usually be grown. Covid-19 obviously didn’t help either as most of the barley was in the ground before the country went into turmoil and with some distilleries shut down, there was a hangover going into the harvest season.”

“On a more positive note, maltsters are looking to expand in Scotland, with more malting capacity coming on stream in the coming years but contract terms need to be improved. There needs to be better dialogue on how prices are reached between the merchants and the producers.”

Going forward, Mark is remaining fairly open minded as farming policies are set to change in the near future. His main aim is to cut inputs costs but maintain output, while continuing to look at new systems and investing into modern technology.