Orkney farmers say service is ‘invaluable’ and ‘relieves stress’
Celebrating 20 years of providing vital record-keeping support and advice to farmers in Orkney is the SAC Consulting office in Kirkwall, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).
One of the very first customers of SAC Consulting’s subsidy management service was Sandwick farmer, Kevan Harvey.
Twenty years ago he moved to a bigger farm, bought more cattle and sheep and decided to get some help with record-keeping. He reckons that over the years, the service will have saved him money, as everything is efficiently kept up-to-date, and he has never suffered a penalty fine.
“The service offers good value for money with the bonus of relieving stress by knowing the job is being done correctly and professionally.”
Kevan runs 120 suckler cows and 200 ewes on his 730 acres at Vestrafold, with Susan Pirie and her team keeping records for both. They record births, movements and deaths, keep a sheep inventory and returns and also help with the annual claim forms. In the past they have also helped him with applying for Environmental Schemes and Kevan said in the days of extens-ification payments, the staff were brilliant at sorting it all out.
“The staff in the SAC Consulting office go above and beyond to help us out; back in the days when cattle had to be killed by 30 months, they would call when an animal was at 29 months so we would not be penalised.”
Now, with no abattoir on Orkney, Kevan sells his cattle store, but he just phones in the tag numbers of those for sale and the staff nip across the car park to the mart with the passports.
Although it has always had an office in Orkney, it was SAC Consultant George Baikie who saw the need for a service to help with cattle records and claim forms and started that side of the business in 2000 along with colleague Nancy Fergus.
The current area manager and senior consultant Susan Pirie has been there for 16 years and has a staff of five including herself in the office, which relocated to the Mart at Kirkwall in 2003.
Orkney is a unique farming area with the highest density of beef cows in Europe; 30,000 on 93,000 hectares.
“What sets Orkney beef apart from the rest of the UK is there is no dairy influence whatsoever in the breeding programme. The farmers are very forward thinking and focussed on the best genetics and production systems to produce top-class beef.”
The way of life in the islands means there is a strong sense of community with farmers willing to help each other out and share labour and equipment. The staff at the SAC Consulting office are very much part of that community and somewhere farmers can turn to for help with form-filling and keeping up to date with the paperwork.
Orkney is famous for its quality of stock and stockman-ship and, partly because of the added cost of imported feed and fertiliser, farmers concentrate on efficient beef production.
“It adds £50 per tonne on to the cost of fertiliser or feed to haul it to Orkney and the lack of a local abattoir means haulage costs for cattle to the mainland are also an added expense.
“Our farmers therefore have had to be a step ahead of the game in finding ways to save costs. They are very open to trying new systems and tweaking production, for example, the QMS grazing group up here was well-supported with many farmers changing to forage-based systems to become more efficient.”
Where SAC Consulting comes in is keeping track of records and movements of cattle and also in some cases, sheep. Susan pointed out that the staff know their clients very well and are extremely flexible in their way of working:
“We are obviously reliant on farmers giving us the information but we can take it by fax, phone, a photo of an ear tag or often they pop in on market day and tell us what’s going on. This has come into its own at the moment with the current Covid-19 restrictions on social contact.”
The service they offer is very personal, says Susan.
“We keep notes next to their records with details such as cows’ names so they can phone us to say, ‘Daisy had a bull calf this morning’ and we can update the records.”
SAC Consulting keeps cattle records for 80 farms on all the main islands of Orkney and is still attracting new clients. Every time there is a change to the subsidy system, new customers come through the door and Susan and her team expect to see even more with the move to electronic tagging of cattle:
“The demographic of farmers on the islands is older and SAC Consulting is providing a critical service to some who are not coping with the demands of paperwork. We have even had referrals from RSABI to help farmers get their house in order.”
Susan is keen to put out a positive farming message during the 20th anniversary of the service in Orkney.
“I believe it should be one of our roles in the community to encourage young people into the industry and explain that it can be a good career path. We have the advantage of our connection with Scotland’s Rural College SRUC which reaches out to younger people.”
Liam Muir of Upper Onston, Stenness, has also found the service provided invaluable. He farms 200 acres in two units at Stenness and Harray plus he rents a further 100 acres. He keeps 40 to 50 suckler cows and buys in 100 store cattle each spring. The staff at SAC Consulting handle all the paperwork for the bought-in cattle as well as completing IACS forms and Environmental Scheme applications, but where the service is of great use to Liam is in his livestock company.
Liam through his business, W S L Muir (Livestock Agent) procures finished cattle for ABP and also supplies dairy calves to suckler farms all over Orkney and as far south as Inverness as replacement calves.
“There are more than 2000 dairy cattle on Orkney and I handle nearly all the surplus calves with SAC Consulting doing much of the paperwork.”
He also buys 50 to 70 pedigree bulls each year to supply customers on the islands and SAC Consulting helps with the paperwork if they are Irish bulls or bought for current SAC Consulting customers.
“The office is in the perfect location at the mart and near the pier. I pop in three or four times a week and the staff could not do more for me. They are very hands-on; picking up passports at the mart or taking them to the boat, they are all local and active in the local community and they know their customers well. If the office was not there, some folk would really struggle. We would manage but they make life much easier and the cost is very reasonable.
“Using the service frees up time for my wife and myself to run the farm and I think SAC Consulting offer very good value for money.”