On the farm with Quality Meat Scotland: Netherton Farm, Orkney, supplier of Scotch Beef

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th January 2014

In association with

As part of our partnership with Quality Meat Scotland, The Staff Canteen decided to check out Netherton Farm in Orkney, winner of the Scotch Beef Farm of the Year 2013. Some of the very finest Scotch Beef is born and reared on Orkney – an archipelago of islands situated off the very north of Scotland.  Here, the land is fertile but windswept and remote and farmers must use all the skills acquired over the years to work in harmony with all that nature throws at them on these wild but very beautiful islands.  Beef cattle thrive in this secure island environment and Orkney farmers have long been at the forefront of advanced animal health and welfare to ensure they produce cattle of the very highest quality. Netherton Farm is the perfect example.  Situated on the main island of Orkney, it is owned and run by husband and wife team, Alistair and Anne Foubister.  It comprises 340 acres of grass and arable land feeding 120 Aberdeen Angus suckler cows and their offspring. The Foubisters are proud of what they have achieved at Netherton. They were one of the very early supporters of Farm Assurance, joining way back in 1991, but it was in 2013 that it won the Scotch Beef Farm of the Year award, something which surprised Alistair on several levels. “At first I was a bit embarrassed really but of course it is a tremendous honour” says Alistair. “My youngest daughter applied on my behalf and didn’t really tell me about it.  When I did find out I told her not to hold her breath.  I don’t do anything more than the other farmers here in Orkney but they just didn’t go in for the competition!” Alistair’s modesty belies a determination and passion for farming which have seen him steadily improve, modernise and increase production over 25 years at Netherton. Alistair, 62, and Anne, 56, bought the farm in 1986. Both children of farmers, they were keen to take on their own farm and push it forward using modern techniques. They started out with sheep but Alistair gradually began to buy in dairy cross beef calves as and when he could afford them. When the heifer calves were old enough to breed , they were paired with an Aberdeen Angus bull, forming the basis for an Aberdeen Angus Cross herd. “I like to see black cattle in my field,” says Alistair, “They are a hardy native breed and they do well up here.  I also thought Aberdeen Angus would be easier to market than any other type of beef.” In 1999 the Foubisters bought extra land which enabled them to enlarge the size of the herd. The construction of a modern cattle shed has also contributed to the increasing efficiency of the farm, seeing a steady rise in cattle sold, from 79 in 2009 to 106 in 2012. All this in an environment which poses unique challenges for beef farming: “We do face some challenging conditions up here,” says Alistair, “first of all the weather. Weather really is one of the most important factors in our farming year and the last couple of years have been atrocious. Particularly wet summers have made great, abundant grass but created a nightmare for harvesting crops and producing winter fodder.” Long hard winters mean that cattle have to be kept inside for six or seven months of the year from October to April. Keeping animals inside for so long requires high-quality, well-ventilated sheds providing adequate comfort and space for the animals but also adding to the fodder costs – Alistair says: “It is sometimes a challenge to provide fodder for all those winter months but home-produced feeding, high welfare and no stress definitely make for better beef.” Orkney Beef is very highly prized by meat plants and butchers on the mainland of Scotland so another factor is the considerable distance to the markets where the Foubisters sell their finished cattle and the extra freight costs which that entails. The cattle have to be transported by ferry in purpose- built livestock containers south to Aberdeen and then transported by road to Stirling. Of course Orkney has a local auction mart where the majority of Netherton  cattle are sold, but people are few and far between on Orkney so buyers from the south are very welcome. It is a vocation which demands total commitment and passion. As Alistair says: “We put everything into the farm. Any profit the farm makes is reinvested on the farm. We are fortunate to have a second income to provide any luxuries like a week or ten-day holiday in the summer.” This second income is provided by Anne, who works as a teacher at Papdale Primary School, in Kirkwall. All of which might beg the question, is it worth it? “Yes, I absolutely enjoy it,” says Alistair. “Orkney is a lovely place to live. If you like the outdoor life and wildlife, it’s absolutely fantastic.” And Netherton isn’t short of wildlife of its own. It neighbours a small loch which teems with fish and attracts plenty of local fauna, wading birds and wildfowl. “We look right down on it,” says Alistair, “and it’s absolutely magic.” With their two daughters, Claire, 24 and Joanna, 20, now grown up, the Foubisters are looking to the future. They have already built the new state-of-the-art cattle shed and Alistair is looking at other schemes to improve efficiency, especially in the field of renewables, an area his daughter, Claire, works in. They have already installed solar panels and are researching wind turbines and anaerobic digestion processes, which extract methane from cow dung to produce energy. The challenges of farming on Orkney mean that the quest for increasing efficiency is an ongoing one. In Orkney there has been a steady increase in the sizes of farm units in recent years as farmers try to achieve economies of scale. However family farms are still in the main and the younger generation still have a passion for farming and producing great Scotch Beef from Orkney or great suckled calves that will be finished by lowland farmers, many of whom travel every year specifically to the markets of Orkney to purchase their raw material. So what of Alistair’s own daughters? “This is their home now,” says Alistair. “I’ve spent 30 years making it a home for them and they just love the place so I think it would be a sad day if they had to leave the farm. But it’s up to them at the end of the day. They’ve got to be happy. Farming is not the easiest of pastimes and you really have to enjoy it.”  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th January 2014

On the farm with Quality Meat Scotland: Netherton Farm, Orkney, supplier of Scotch Beef