All farmers have to look to the future in an era of ever diminishing returns, but when it comes to diversification and forward thinking, there are few better than the Kingans, from New Abbey, Dumfries – winners of Agriscot Beef Farm of the year.

Following more than 150 years in agriculture, their business remains very much a family affair, being run by Alistair and his wife, Suzi, along with Alistair’s parents, Margaret and Russell, and full-time staff – Gordon McKenna, Michael Clingan and Murray White.

The enterprise buys in 1400 steers a year – to finish, of which 60-70% are bought privately from the same local buyers, with the remainder purchased at Castle Douglas or Islay markets. Margaret does all the cattle transactions, working with most breed, including Charolais, Luing, Aberdeen-Angus, Limousin and Herefords.

Buying from a known source privately means the Kingans know the cattle will thrive on their system and they can provide feedback to the breeders, to enable ongoing performance.

“We are constantly looking at performance, and without doubt, Charolais are the best performers for us. We do need a variety, but they are the quickest to finish which is exactly what we need in today’s environment. The less time taken to finish, the better, it reduces our output expenditure per animal and carbon footprint,” said Alistair.

But, despite being crowned Beef Farm of the Year, the Kingans, admitted they were losing a colossal amount of money due to the continual low prices paid by processors, especially now with store cattle prices ahead on cost from last year and daily costs remaining at best on par. Last year, the farm produced 504 tonnes of red meat at a loss rate of -33p per kg.

“The last 18 months have been tough for us, but I also believe all finishers will have seen a marked reduction in their profitability and sustainability,” said Alistair, adding that the industry also needed to work collaboratively to overcome the changes to meat eating patterns and climate change challenges, while also portraying truthful facts and taking a lead in education.

One way of increasing demand for beef and ultimately end prices is producing a more uniform product by finishing cattle to customer/consumer specification – a system the family believe they have worked out to a ‘T’.

Once on farm, bought-in cattle are separated into different groups according to weight and breed, and they stay in these same groups throughout which means they are more settled and content and therefore perform better. They are summered at grass, when the farm is busy growing a mix of barley, wheat and oats to ensure there is a sustainable source of quality feed to see them through the winter.

The Kingan business is part of a Co-op contract and all of their beef goes to the fully integrated beef supplier, Stoddarts, with whom they have worked with for 17 years, finishing around 25 cattle a week.

Cattle are finished around the 700kg liveweight mark, to fit in with the current weight restrictions at the deadweight end. Hence, weight is the first thing considered when selecting prime cattle and the aim is to finish all at under 21 months with good grades.

Alistair added: “Stoddarts work really well with us and we are in weekly contact with them to ensure both our supply and their demand needs are met, knowing they are receiving the same high-quality meat all year round. As we have worked with them for 17 years, we have built up a strong relationship which means that we can trust one another.

“A solid supply chain means that beef from our cattle has been exported across to Canada, Japan, and Germany. This is all down to our working relationship with Stoddarts, which has been working hard to enable these exports to happen.”

The Co-op contract has set ambitious targets for carbon reduction and with Kingan Farms currently one of their ‘Gold Star Aberdeen-Angus producers,’ hitting the target, this reduction in emissions is likely to pay the farm a premium in the future.

Suzi said: “For the last few years we have worked hard to reduce and monitor our carbon footprint and environmental impact, we want our beef to be as green as it can be. All our ground is precision farmed, utilising greening and cover crops to improve soil structure and feeding our cattle Maxammon barley to reduce their emissions.”

The final stage of the supply chain is how the meat tastes on the plate and a lot of the Kingan beef produced is marbled throughout, which keeps the meat tender, moist and infuses meat flavour.

“There is nothing worse than all of us putting the hard graft in, for a chef to cook it wrong and for it not to taste as it should,” said Alistair.

“Beef sales are on a down-wards spiral so farmers need to think outside the box. We cannot stick to what we are doing, we have to be able to adapt to consumer demand – every avenue is an opportunity.

“Red meat is in a challenging place just now, but we need to think what consumers want and right now, if people are choosing to eat meat they want high welfare meat but this comes at a cost not everyone can afford to pay,” said Alistair.

One way of overcoming this issue, Margaret said is perhaps moving into dairy-beef – an avenue the family is likely to pursue in the foreseeable future.

This is where the importance of education comes in, as people do not understand the cost of production and the welfare standards that are in place in Scotland, she argued.

The Kingan team already does its bit for education by opening up the farm to the public and also hosting RHET school visits, with various on farm tours allowing people to see exactly what goes on behind the gate.

“RHET visitors are our future customers and they need to learn at a young age the facts about farming to understand it, rather than learning the false information they are at present.

“At the end of the day, these youngsters are not only potential customers, but feature team members, farming it is a career path, and we need to be able to encourage the younger generation to stay involved.

“People seem to think if you can’t do anything else, you can just go and work on a farm, and that’s not the case. There are so many skills involved in farming, but you also have to be passionate about it,” said Alistair.

It was a point highlighted by Suzi: “We cannot do the job we love without our passionate team, and each and every one of them works hard for us and cares about the job,” said Suzi.

The Kingans are also embracing modern technology having used electronic tags of all cattle for more than 10 years and being paperless at the crush for four years. This has enabled accessible information on individual animals through via all of the team’s smart phones.

They are also constantly putting up posts on their Facebook page to educate others, although it is only reaching similar minded people.

Although 80% of the family’s enterprise revolves around beef, they also run separate businesses in contracting, renewables and holiday cottages.

In 2014, they set up a biomass boiler, processing woodchips into energy which is a profitable side of the business.

The next big exciting project is the merge of AK Farm Services into Kingan Farms, which is set to take place this summer. Both were run by Kingan Farms previously but are joining forces as one business for ease management.

AK Farms Services, has also invested in a ‘smart’ Lemken fertiliser and grain combination drill which allows variable drilling using maps which were produced from the yield maps during harvest 2019.

“We do everything apart from umbilical slurry application, with all our vehicles working with RTK GPS this allows all fertiliser and chemical applications to be applied to the highest degree of accuracy and allowing for controlled traffic,” said Alistair.

“Again, this is all run via our phones and tablets and reverts back to the cloud. Team members use the phone app, harvest yield- an agricultural job card app, which measures how many hours, fuel and chemicals used, which can be pinged straight back to Suzi, and then sent out to the client to be charged. It is an easy service,” said Alistair.

The two holiday cottages managed by Suzi, are in the perfect location being situated in hearty, central, scenic surroundings. Such has been their success in recent years, that they are also adding a glamping pod to the mix, next to their very own pond which has been a real hit with visitors and locals.

“Being on the route of the South-west 300, it is rewarding to see this sector doing well which I believe will continue, to grow,” said Suzi.

On-farm diversification has spread the risk of the beef enterprise, but the team will always strive to be the best they can and succeed in all sectors.

“Everything in today’s world is making us think about our own enterprise, however, we are excited but nervous about the future. People need to understand the work that goes into red meat,” concluded Alistair.