FARMING and contracting in Caithness can be tough and bleak at times, but the Mackay family from West Greenland, at Castletown – one of the most northerly contractors on mainland Britain – now have a well-established contracting business, an impressive machinery fleet, two successful livestock enterprises and an arable business. 
West Greenland Contracting, which runs from the 600-acre home unit, was established in the 1960s when Andrew snr started out with an International B414 and a B46 baler. Since then, the contracting business has grown massively with sons, Andrew jnr and Joe at the helm. 
They now drill 1691 acres; sow 790 acres of grass seed; cut 3000 acres of silage; plough 864 acres and combine 1852 acres. The team travel a fair distance with machines, too, as some of their customers are situated as far away as Durness – a three-hour road trip away – and others farm further south, at Helmsdale, in Sutherland. 

The Scottish Farmer:

Joe who is a past Scottish champion ploughing with the 6155R and five-furrow Kverneland 

While the Mackays are busy in the spring ploughing and sowing for customers and their own 270 acres of spring barley for home use, they also have a 120-cow spring calving herd to tend to and 500 breeding ewes which lamb from March 25 onwards.
All calves are finished on the farm, along with 300 bought-in stores from Quoybrae mart, near Thurso. They are sold through Caithness Livestock Breeders to McIntosh Donald, Portlethen, as soon as they hit 700kg live. 
Outwith the 600 acres at West Greenland, the family own 270 acres at another unit, Mount Pleasant and rent 150 acres of seasonal grazing nearby. Just recently, they have taken on the running of 400 acres of spring barley land near Wick.

How would you describe contracting in Caithness?
It’s challenging when you are working alongside our climate, especially in the spring and at harvest, so we need to work with big machinery to get the workload done. We should have five weeks in the spring to drill barley but, we only get about three weeks because two of those weeks it’s usually raining. Sowing doesn’t usually take place until after March 25. 
We have longer days in the summer but short days in the winter. In June, we could work away the whole night, but we try to not chop silage any later than 10pm. It’s a different story with the combines, though... we just keep going. 

Dealerships used?
Claas machinery is sourced from W and A Geddes at Wick; our John Deeres and KV comes from HRN and the new Lemken drills and press are from Sellars. 
We also use Charlie Angus Ag Engineering, in Thurso, for servicing vehicles, supplying tyres and the odd bit of fabricating. 

Favourite piece of kit?
Andrew: The Lexion 570+ combine. In a good dry spell, it can easily pack in 35 tonnes per hour in spring barley. 
Joe: My Landrover 2012 Defender double-cab which I use as everyday transport. It’ll go anywhere I want it to and do anything I want it to. 

The Scottish Farmer:

Spreading muck at home last November when the new 120 Bunning spreader came home 

Least favourite machine?
It has to be the John Deere Gator which is mainly used for feeding sheep with the snacker feeder – it’s constantly needing money spent on it! They’re £16,000 new and after three years you would probably only get £6000 for it, plus we are spending £1200 each year on it to keep it running. Brakes and wheels are the biggest problem. 

Newest and oldest piece of kit?
We’ve just bought two new Lemken drills, a 4m and a 6m, to replace the Vaderstad Spirit 4m that we sold. Due to the wetter weather up here, we need the power harrow on the drills and hopefully this’ll produce better crops. A Lemken drill seems to be the one to have now. 
Our oldest piece of kit is the John Deere 6320 Premium which is Andrew snr’s favourite tractor. It’s used on one of the Keenan feeder wagons. 

The Scottish Farmer:

The firm’s John Deere 7260R with the new 6m Lemken drill which has just recently arrived along with a 4m version 

Best tractor you’ve had?
The JD 6910 was a tremendous tractor and the most reliable one we’ve had yet. We bought it second-hand for £24,000 with 4000 hours and ran it to just short of 9000 hours before selling it. In all its time with us we only spent £700 on repairs. We should never have sold it. 

Worst tractor you’ve had?
Without a doubt it’s the Case IH MX170. It was the main tractor within the fleet, so it did a range of jobs. We kept it for 18 months and it spent 100 days in bits in the dealers. The diff’ seals went twice, the steering didn’t work half the time, clutchpacks were replaced and it constantly leaked oil. 

How long do you keep machines for?
We used to keep tractors until about 7000 hours or seven-years-old but they’re now creeping up over 8000 hours due to the price of machinery constantly going up and up. Combines are kept a lot longer as they don’t work as hard and as often as the tractors.

The Scottish Farmer:

A job with a view and a cracking day for bringing in silage at Balnakeil, Durness 

Are there any tools in the workshop which you couldn’t live without?
Cordless tools are so handy because you can take them out to the field to use. You just have to hope the batteries are charged when you need it. 

Is there a machine you would like to bring home?
We are looking for a Lexion 550 or 560 as we need a third combine due to taking on an extra 650 acres of combining this year.
Favourite job?
Andrew: Sowing barley – it’s the start of a new season.
Joe: Ploughing – it’s peaceful and stress free. I plough with a 6155R John Deere and a KV five-furrow. This is the second year I have been using a press whilst ploughing which helps consolidate the ground better and allows the drill to work quicker. 

Least favourite job?
Andrew: Clipping cattle’s bellies, as nine times out of 10 you get kicked ... and trying to get calves to suckle!
Joe: Dressing seed. It’s boring and dusty, so I leave Andrew to do it. I would rather be in prison! 

The Scottish Farmer:

A selection of cattle bought through Quoybrae which are finished at 700kg and sold to McIntosh Donald 

Are there are any other jobs which keep you busy throughout the year?
We remove draff and effluent out of Wolfburn distillery – the most northerly mainland distillery in Britain. The draff is kept for feeding at home. Other jobs include dressing between 400 and 500 tonnes of barley and oat seed. 

Favourite time of the year?
Like most people, spring time is our favourite time of the year. The weather gets better, grass starts appearing, lambs and calves arrive, and fat cattle go off. We find harvest more stressful than the spring work.

How would you describe harvest 2017?
Although 2017 was a bad year for most, we reckon 2015’s harvest was worse. Last year, we managed to get all 1200 acres cut and baled by October 15, whereas 2015’s harvest saw us still combining the following January and we didn’t finish baling until spring, 2016. 
This year, although mid-harvest we were cutting barley up to 25% moisture, some was cut as dry as 16% and the last lot of oats was harvested at 18% or 19%. We’re lucky that we’re geared up with machinery – on a decent, dry day we can cut as much as 150 acres per day. 

The Scottish Farmer:

Cutting spring barley at West Greenland in 2016

Are there any other struggles when contracting and farming in Caithness?
It’s particularly hard to get parts for machinery when you’re so far north, especially if the machine breaks down on a Friday as you won’t get the parts until the following Tuesday. If there’s a big breakdown in a machine, we hire a van and driver to come north with the parts and we head south to meet them somewhere on the A9. 
W and A Geddes, in Wick, offer a great service as the boys will work all night to get the machines up and running for the next morning.


Tractors: John Deere 7260R, 6155R, 6630, 6330 (x2), and a 6320
Loaders: JCB 416 and 531-70 Loadall
Combines: Claas Lexion 550 and 570+
Forager: Claas Jaguar 950
Grass: Claas Liner 2900 rake, John Deere 388 triple mower, JD 730 centre pivot mower 
Cultivation equipment: Lemken 6m and Lemken 4m, KV five-furrow (x2) and Lemken press, Opico grass seeder
Other equipment: Kuhn Axis 40.1 fertiliser spreader, 120 Bunning muck spreader, 2500 gallon Redrock tanker, Agrimac 14t trailers (x4), Bailey 14t trailer, JD 732i trailed sprayer (shared with a neighbour)


Full-time – Andrew snr, Andrew jnr, Joe and Murray Coghill.
Part-time – Keith Bremner, who works six months of the year.
Two other members of staff are brought in at peak times.