This month we made some of the best hay we’ve ever made – not bad going for September.

I imagine that every combine in the country must have been at work in that first week as the sun shone, the rain stayed away and the mercury hit the dizzying heights of 25c. Securing the grass and removing the bulls from the cows signals the end of the summer for us and focuses our minds on the coming months.

We have reduced our bulling length over the years and this year they were out for just over seven weeks. As can be expected, just when you don’t need it, one of the bulls went lame early on. As we multi sire mate we were able to do a bit of shuffling about and are hopeful that the lack of activity in week seven was a sign that everything had been served. Time will tell. It can feel a bit risky so we keep plenty of heifers to ensure we maintain numbers. Part of the reason for the short joining is to have everything calved before the Highland Show – as good an excuse as I can think of. The other part is that a drawn out calving starts to interfere with other jobs, creating hassle and putting us under unnecessary pressure.

That suckler cow numbers continue to decrease across the UK is of concern. A critical mass is required to support the regional jobs and infrastructure we rely on as an extended part of the industry. The reasons for cutting back are many and varied. For some it is a simplification of business enterprises, for others the days of handling beasts the size of a small car is no longer safe or enjoyable. For many, it is that the cost of keeping cattle has become too expensive. It’s a good time to look to those who have found a way through these challenges and reverse the decline whilst we still can.

After being so smugly pleased with our lambs after weaning, the reality of growing sheep kicked in. They went from spotlessly clean to skittery in a matter of four days. The warm, damp weather meant a flush of lush, high quality grass and it went straight through them. Reassuringly, other people are reporting a similar problem. That it may be a combination of lack of fibre, mineral imbalance, coccidiosis, worms, too high protein and a list of other possibilities demonstrates why the search for the perfect sheep is a never ending one.

The good news in the sheep game is that prices seem to be holding up. We got rid of the last of our cast and cull ewes in Dingwall and were delighted with the trade. With many friends and family in Australia, I feel somewhat guilty reporting this to them. They are down to $5/kg (2.60pounds) dead weight having been at similar prices to us in more recent years. Cull ewes were going through the saleyards at $5 a head – less than the cost of haulage. To add to their challenge an El Nino weather effect has been declared meaning drought is likely over the next few years. It is a reminder of how volatile prices can be and I am grateful every time we sell stock that we have not been subjected to those kind of prices for a number of years.

A few weeks ago we drove south of Edinburgh (a note worthy event in itself) to Cumbria for ‘Carbon Calling’. Touted as the ‘Groundswell of the North’ it is a ‘regen ag festival’ with a heavy livestock focus. Now I know many readers are sick of the ‘R’ word and there is no doubt it can be divisive. We certainly don’t describe ourselves as regenerative farmers, but keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn has served us well so far. That it was in a barn, with live music and there seemed to be an endless supply of the local brew on tap made it all the more enjoyable. I’m not sure staying up until 4:30am to finish off the last keg was entirely necessary though.

My answer when asked why we’re not ‘regenerative’ is usually that I don’t feel our farm needs regenerating. We already have high organic matter and good soil structure. For economic and management reasons we have barely ploughed in the last ten years, use very little sprays or fertilisers and are able to sustain high stocking density through good grass management and agreements with other landholders. As a very small farm, reducing this density would threaten our economic viability.

But I must always remember ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. A few conversations with some really switched on people soon made me realise that there is room to embrace some parts of a regenerative approach without compromising long term profitability and making our farm a better place in the process.

Our standard soil tests are a chemical analysis of our soil – they are not a biological measure of fungi, bacteria and microbes, the elements that really determine if soil is healthy. I had good intentions of getting a few biological samples done this year, but as I gather myself at the end of the summer I think the season has probably beaten me so it’s been added to next years list (again). I wanted to do the testing because I’m a bit nerdy, but mostly I want to do it so I can say to our consumers and those outside of farming that I have the evidence to back up my story. If I greenwash what we do, without good evidence, I can’t criticise all the big corporates who do so, shamelessly, in a bid to secure profits for shareholders.

So, whilst I am deeply cynical about the powers pushing the carbon narrative (and I could go down a whole conspiracy theory thread here) and the disproportionate focus livestock receive, I’m certainly not against creating more space for nature where we can. I’ve just ordered some more hedging and trees which will go in this winter to provide both habitat for the birds and beasties and shelter for livestock. We’ll also look at what we can do to help our lapwings continue breeding on the farm. Unfortunately there isn’t any support available for such small scale projects and it is something we need to petition Scottish Government to consider if they really are committed to supporting small family farms and improving environmental outcomes.

*Vic Ballantyne farms alongside her husband Jason just outside of Brora, Sutherland

*300 ac /125 ha tenanted livestock farm and rented grazing

*Grew up on a farm in Australia and has been in Scotland since 2006 – when I came to do the lambing at Clynelish

*2022 Nuffield Scholar – topic looking at the role of body condition in maternal livestock