A common goal to meet the social needs and environmental expectations of consumers sparked a collaboration between Alex Brewster and Robert Fleming, who participated in Quality Meat Scotland’s (QMS) grazing programmes.

On any ordinary day, you will probably find Alex Brewster, who recently won the UK’s Livestock Soil Farmer of the Year 2020, examining cowpats and root depth on his farm, Rotmell, located in Highland Perthshire near Dunkeld. The farm is home to 700 ewes,160 Aberdeen Angus cows plus heifers and 4000 organic laying hens, which Alex runs with his wife and a young team as well as additional contract farming operations. With a short grazing season, Rotmell is all categorised as a less favoured area (LFA), with around 130 hectares of improved pasture, 200 hectares of rough grazing and the rest hill.

More than 160 miles south of Alex, Robert Fleming, a former AgriScot Beef Farm of the Year winner, farms at Castle Sinniness located near Glenluce. With a long grazing season, Robert runs 200 Aberdeen Angus cows, Saddleback pigs, 60 pedigree Roussin sheep, a newly established flock of Beltex for pedigree and a new composite bred easy lambing sheep enterprise. Robert also has an additional 350 cattle on contract grazing over 240 hectares of grassland.

“We’re very much in contrast,” explains Robert. “Alex has a high, very dry hill and a long and hard winter, whereas, by the coast, we have a very mild season and grow a lot of grass, but it is expensive to put that good quality grass to use when housing a cow. Cows with me should really be inside for the winter, as they can do a lot of soil damage, while an animal half that weight doesn’t, so it’s finding that balance.”

Alex and Robert met four years ago and over a couple of beers at the bar, they started discussing each of their enterprises when the idea to collaborate started to form.

The partnership began in 2017 with Robert taking Alex’s calves to graze at Glenluce which then progressed in 2018 to Robert taking cattle through to finish.

“Robert produces an awful lot of grass and the combination just seemed to make sense at half-past 11 at night, after a couple of beers! Over six months later we sent him down some steers and it went from there. Within a year he put cows up to me. It’s joint venture and a relationship built on trust,” said Alex.

In Perthshire, Alex manages Robert’s cows along with his own through to calving. Subsequently tagging them, before sending both their calves back down to Glenluce in November minus any retained breeding heifers with the cows remaining on the hill at Rotmell. These calves have a month of grazing before being wintered either inside due to weather or on brassicas, turnips, or spare bales. They are then turned back out to grass on 1st February.

Collaborations of this kind are not common. As Robert explains: “From my side, the general perception is that it’s complicated; that, maybe, you don’t have enough control of your own livestock. I think farmers find it particularly difficult to broker the actual cost of grazing an animal. They’re perfectly aware of the cost to buy a field if a neighbour was to put it up for sale, but have no idea what it is actually going to cost them if they were to contract graze an animal per day, per month, per week, so it is fear of the unknown.

“We work it out on kilograms of dry matter consumed, and through calculation of the weight of the animal, we know what the stock balance is. If you know how much you’re feeding them, and how much they’re consuming, it is a simple way to charge it out.”

Both farmers stressed that it is not just the financial implications that need to be considered when entering such a partnership.

“You need to be able to have an open and honest conversation, an understanding of what you both need from the agreement to make it happen and, most importantly, you have to find common ground,” says Robert. “Discuss what resources you can offer each other, whether it is management skills, access to better land or a big dry hill, and then find where the balance is.”

“We need more opportunities for farmers to connect, share knowledge and collaborate on a deeper level. It can be really hard to find someone 4.5 hours north of you to work with unless you’re sitting beside them at a meal and it happens to come up in conversation,” Robert concludes.