Guest View by Niall Jeffrey,

Bielgrange Farm, East Lothian

It’s that time of year again. We’ve finally caught up with the work load, harvest has been and gone without too many dramas, autumn crops went in well and are now all through the ground.

Calves are all weaned and back at home in the corral, cows are scanned and back out on the deferred hill grazing for the winter and batches of cattle have been moving steadily out of the fattening shed, which will hopefully be empty by Christmas.

We have moved into the winter routine. The team are busy with the ongoing maintenance list and catching up with the many 'I’ll get to it later!' jobs that have been mounting up since June.

At this point in the farming year, I like to look back at everything from the last eight months – from calving, to bulling, to weaning and from the growing season, to harvest, to crop establishment.

I try to gather as much information and data as possible allowing me to work out our successes and failures and how to do it better next year. I also use this time of for planning the next year, the next project or the next area for reinvestment.

In normal times, I would have a winter calendar full of meetings and events that would keep me up to date with current industry challenges and opportunities. These can range from preparing our business for Brexit to keeping day old calves alive.

Some are essential, such as collecting sprayer operator, or agronomy CPD points, and some for interest, like looking at new farming enterprises, so we can keep questioning what we do.

Often, the best part of these days is catching up with other farmers and sharing the best ideas or worst mistakes which can be very useful for every business.

This year, however, brings a completely different prospect. The effect of Covid-19 on the world population has been devastating and the message to limit contact between people to prevent spreading has been clear.

The result is a very empty calendar … or so I thought. Last week, I chanced upon an online farm walk webinar which, due to the great hosts and an interesting topic, I really enjoyed.

A few days later, it spurred me on to join a NFUS Zoom branch meeting which was, surprisingly, even better! The timing and location of both meant I would have struggled to make either meeting in the flesh, but instead enjoyed them from the comfort of my office chair.

Now I, like most other people on the planet, was fed up with Zoom-type meetings by the end of the spring lock down and was thankful when our weekly quiz ended. The novelty had worn off, the frustrating broadband connection meant chunks of meetings were missed or finished off on a phone screen, whilst trying to find 4G (I will save my rural broadband rant for another day!) Zoom was behind us when lockdown was over, and it was great to get out and meet up with people, socially distanced of course, again.

But now, heading into the dark nights of winter and with tightened Covid-19 restrictions, I feel it is time to reconsider. A few internet searches later and I have found lots of potential meetings to join throughout the winter with some great speakers and content, from local business and from all over the world.

In fact, as most are recorded, there is no excuse to miss them.

The first in the calendar is AgriScot. I was glad to see the organisers had decided to push ahead with going online, so I signed up this week. This has been a really useful event over the years and my 2019 visit resulted in our business benefitting from a new cattle crush, a game changing chat about colostrum and an Integrated Land Management Plan.

I remember thinking after the mid-day seminar, the head-to-head between the NFUS and the Scottish Government, that we are so lucky in this country. How many other farmers in the rest of the world have the opportunity to walk in to a meeting like this and voice concern about the issues of the day?

This year it is great to still see this on the agenda, along with a full programme of seminars and trade stands, albeit virtual. I am intrigued to visit a virtual trade stand and look forward to an online chat about the latest products, machinery or software.

It looks like I will get my winter fix of government policy, market trends and innovation essential to our farming business after all.

Now, I have to admit online is not the same as face-to-face! But it is currently what we have. The farming community has done very well in spreading the 'keep talking' message to support out mental wellbeing over the last nine months and looking forward I feel the message is still the same.

So, until a time when we can start getting out on farms again, I feel we should all try and get online, get involved and meet up on screen in the near future.