Fluctuating grain prices and increased input costs are only a few of the constant battles that arable farmers face year on year, however, with attention to detail and investment in modern equipment and technology, Caithness-based brothers, Derek and Evan Oag, are hitting net returns with their top quality grain.

Purchased in 2016 by the Oag family, Scrabster Farm comprises of 566 ha, however with additional contract farming agreements and other farming enterprises, Derek and brother, Evan, now manage some 1214 ha in total.

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"We are in our sixth season since buying Scrabster in early 2016 and looking back, the purchase was one of the best decisions we have made," stated Derek. “When we came here, there were no suitable buildings, so we decided to flatten the entire farm and build up everything new from scratch.

"The quality of the ground here at Scrabster is second to none, with very earthy soil and barely any stones – making it the perfect location for planting crops,” he added.

Derek's agricultural knowledge also enabled him to gain contracting work at a young age, which led to larger contract farming agreements with neighbouring farmers and landowners.

"I began contracting at 15-years-old, helping a neighbour chop his 60 acres of silage with my Case International 956 and a JF trailed forager. The same customer then asked me to return with all the necessary equipment to do the entire harvest the following year and before I knew it, the contracting business grew arms and legs," explained Derek.

"My father backed me the whole way and I now contract around 3000 acres per year, with 500 of that being under our agreement. We carry out silage harvesting to drilling, and everything in between," he said.

"However, with our own arable enterprise increasing and requiring a lot more input and time, I don’t do so much contract sowing, ploughing or combining as I have to concentrate on the work at home."

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The current farming business operates across light loam land and this year, Derek and Evan are growing around 280ha of spring gluten-free oats, 120ha of malting spring barley and 32ha of winter feed barley, with the remainder of the acreage being left as permanent pasture for the cattle at Scrabster.

With the weather in Caithness proving a constant battle, the Oag family believe that Aspen seed oats and Sassy barley suits the surrounding conditions perfectly and produce the goods for them year on year.

“We grow a lot of gluten-free oats and the variety we are using is proving to be successful here at Scrabster. The ground here is so good for the oats and we are hitting massive bushel weights, averaging up to 65 across most years,” said Derek.

“We also grow around 100 acres of Memento winter barley, too, which is used for feeding our cattle after being processed through a bruiser and maximum treated.”

The use of fertilisers is an essential part of crop development and growth, providing vital nutrients and helping increase yields. The Oag family rely on drilled manure, specifically YaraMila 8-24-24 or more recently, Yara 10-20-28.

“This year we had to use a new variety of fertiliser as we could not get a hold of any of YaraMila, which we would normally use. Looking to the future, we will continue with the new stuff as it is proving to be the cleanest manure to pass through the lungpass, meaning it isn’t as dusty and settles on the ground better,” explained Evan.

Reducing compaction is an aspect of drilling that is extremely important at Scrabster, and one which Derek believed he had achieved with the use of a combi-drill system as opposed to a grain only system.

“When it comes to cultivation work, we normally just plough the land, however with the bad spring we had earlier this year and worrying about how prepared the seed bed would be, I decided to use Cambridge rollers and shatter boards. Looking back, I did feel that it contributed to more compaction problems, so I will be going back to the old method of ploughing again next year – it was a learning curve and one which I wanted to try!” commented Derek.

“We work on a one pass sowing system to reduce the compaction on the ground, working at two cwt per acre of compound Yara manure and then top dressed with two cwt of Yara N,” said Derek.

“I bought a 6m Lemken combi drill and I’m currently on my fifth season with it. I much prefer the combi system as I believe that the manure has got to go into the ground with the seed in order to get a better result."

With harvest kicking off at the beginning of August with winter barley and ending in the middle of September, Derek and Evan currently operate two separate grain driers, as well as separate all-purpose built grain sheds and storage units for the gluten free oats and the remainder of the crop, to ensure that everything is kept separate with no cross contamination being a problem.

For harvesting, the family operate three Claas combines – 560TT, 570TT and a 108 Dominator – as well as a McHale V660 baler and the newest addition of a Massey Ferguson 2190 baler too.

“All our machinery had been selected due to their efficiency and capability to carry out the task at hand. Our JCB 435 loading shovel would probably be our best purchase to date as it has really come into its own in the grain store and makes loading the lorries a breeze. We also run various tractors, including makes like Fendt, JCB, Claas and John Deere,” Evan said.

Cover crops are proving a more popular option within arable enterprises, with benefits including the prevention of surface run-off of soil, nutrients and minerals, as well as reducing soil erosion, and these are some of the reasons behind why the Oag family are looking to follow the trend.

“We don’t currently have any cover crops, however it’s something we have been discussing and are planning on introducing this year to around 100 acres of our ground,” Derek stated.

“The method isn’t something that's very popular here in Caithness, however I was inspired to try it by learning from another farm's experience. I’m involved in the dealing of straw and buy from a farm near Portmahomack, where over the last few years I’ve been watching their method during harvest season.

“After I have baled their straw, the farmer encouraged me to shift the bales off the ground as fast as possible to allow a tractor to get in behind me and subsoil the ground to plant cover crops. With the farm producing good tonnages every year and also getting a lot of straw per acre from the crop, I felt as if they are doing the right thing and it made me want to try it for myself.

“We have not yet decided on what the cover crop shall be, but it will not be high in nitrogen due to the field in question being used for malting barley,” he explained.

Accuracy and efficiency are key aspects at Scrabster and with driver fatigue becoming an ever-growing problem in modern arable enterprises, the family are looking to venture into the use of GPS to ensure that quality continues to be at the fore.

“We have GPS apps on our phones but within the next year, we would like to have GPS auto-steer fitted on all some of our tractors. I would also like to be relying on it when drilling, to ensure that lines are as straight as possible and help take the pressure of some of the bigger jobs that we undertake,” said Derek.

“Hopefully, this will improve overall accuracy of work and help with driver fatigue, which can be a problem when working long hours. John Deer’s GreenStar system looks to be one of the more attractive options for us and we will look to extend into this over the next few years.”

Professional advice is an important aspect of today’s farming enterprise and can contribute to the improvement of products leaving the farm gate. With this in mind, Derek and Evan seek the advice and expertise of local agronomist and supplier, Ewan Mackenzie, of W and A Geddes.

“Ewan is a great asset to our enterprise and helps ensure that we are making the most of our assets and producing the best possible product that we can, here at Scrabster,” said Derek.

“As well as Ewan, this is our seventh season working with Morning Foods in regard to our gluten-free oats and we find them a great company to work with, as well as Bairds Malts who buy the majority of our malting barley.

“We also rely on the expertise of our land agent, Iona Cameron, at Cameron Consulting. She is a fantastic contact for us and helps us with courses and online platforms too,” he added.

Farming schemes can be a beneficial attribute to an agricultural business and one which the Oag family have partaken for a number of years, however with increased land requirements for their arable enterprise proving necessary, a change seems to be on the horizon.

“We are currently part of the Agri-Environmental Scheme and we look forward to seeing what the Scottish Government have planned for the future. Obviously, the benefit for us is extra income, however, the scheme dictates that we cannot graze certain fields, as well as not being able to cut silage until after July 1 – which is proving a challenge for us,” explained Derek.

“We have one year left in the scheme and as much as it has been beneficial for us, we will be coming back out of it after next year. We have ground tied up here that we can’t sow oats into because of the scheme, which ultimately means that we can’t improve the ground and that is more of a fundamental aspect to us.”

With a busy workload at home and contract work always at the forefront, the business continues to be predominately family-run, with Evan’s son, Ryan, joining as the team’s newest recruit.

“Derek and I solely manage the cropping side to the business, along with the help of our three full time employees and only recently, my son Ryan,” commented Evan.

“When the pandemic hit the UK, we had heard a lot of other business struggle with staff retention, however, it hasn’t proved to be an issue for us as we have a very loyal team that have stayed with us throughout the years – we see them as an extension of our family.”

Looking to the future of their enterprise in a post-Brexit economy, the family are hopeful that their business shall continue to flourish regardless of the possible challenges they may face.

“Brexit is going to bring huge changes to the agricultural industry within Scotland over the next few years and, currently, it is a huge unknown factor in the future of our sector.

“As of now, it has not directly affected us, however, we are confident that we will continue to adapt and thrive in any environment we find ourselves in,” Derek concluded.


Farm background – The entire farming enterprise totals 1200ha, including seasonal ground with Scrabster totalling some 1400 acres of grazing and crop ground. The farm is owned and managed by the Oag family, primarily brothers, Derek and Evan.

Cattle – Home to 350 Simmental cross and Saler cross cattle which are bred to produce store calves.

Arable – 280ha of spring gluten-free oats, 120ha of malting spring barley and 32ha of winter feed barley, with the remainder of the acreage being left as permanent pasture for the cattle.

Contracting – The family contract farm 3000 acres of arable ground per year.