2021 winners follow up: Colin Davidson, Beef Farmer of the Year

Implementing a sustainable, yet efficient system on-farm is the aim for farmer Colin Davidson who was crowned Beef Farmer of the Year at the 2021 British Farming Awards. Ellie Layton speaks to the reigning winner to find out more.

The Davidson family may be farming next to remains from the Stone Age, but their farming methods are in no way prehistoric. Located on one of the most north easterly farms in the British Isles, Skaill Farm has been home to the Davidson family for 75 years in Sandwick, Orkney. Farming with an ethos of low inputs due to the location of the farm, cost reduction and efficiency is paramount. The farm supports a closed herd of 230 sucklers, including 100 pedigree Aberdeen-Angus cows, and a sheep flock made up of 300 pedigree Lleyn ewes, headed up by wife Pamela.


Cows are outwintered and calved outside on the sand dunes, ensuring the quick draining ground is used to its potential. Originally the herd was a mix of
Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn cows, but with a strong history in the Aberdeen-Angus breed, the farm is now just Aberdeen-Angus due to their
easy management. The herd is on a spring-calving system and heifers are calved down at two years old and have been for more than 20 years.
Colin says: “The breed works well with the ground we have and the cows are easily managed with vigorous calves that do well.” Commercial cattle are sold in market in north east and central Scotland as forward stores. “We sell our stores at around 15 months old to repeat customers from across Scotland. We aim for 550kg for the bullocks and 520kg for the heifers.” Over the years, Colin has introduced genetics from Canada and the US into the herd, some of which are unique to this country. This has been achieved by using artificial insemination, embryo transfer and by importing a couple of females. Colin sells 30 Aberdeen-Angus bulls both on-farm and at Stirling bull sales. This growing part of the business attracts buyers from as far south as Cornwall. Social media has become an important part of advertising, with the farm now having more than 1,500 followers. Three bulls have been sold to Genus as their new feeding system data is in-line with what Genus do.


Away from the farm, Colin is a respected member of the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society council, covering the North of Scotland. Over the years, Skaill has had success in the show and sale rings and in 2000, the farm broke the breed record by 5,000gns selling a two year-old heifer, Skaill Deliah X16, for 16,000gns after being crowned supreme champion at Perth. The farm is made up of 243 hectares (600 acres) of good quality grassland pasture and the land suitable for the plough. The other 162ha (400 acres) is coastal heath and hill grazing. The winters tend to be long and wet, hence seven months of winter keep is needed. Although the low-lying, 200ft coastal location is beautiful, the new grass can get damaged by the salt spray. The sheep effectively follow the cattle to helping with weed control. The farm is self sufficient in homegrown cereals, straw and silage, which are used to reduce costs and the only bought-in feed source is protein and minerals, which includes a Carbon Trust-assured additive to reduce methane and increase efficiency. Closely monitoring diets to maximise and record feed efficiency and residual feed intake means data can be incorporated into estimated breeding values. The farm was one of the first in Scotland to install a new cutting-edge feeding system. It uses feed efficiency troughs which individually weigh the diet, giving feed conversion for each animal by reading their electronic tag. This new technology is to help produce an animal in the most efficient way possible and allow better selection in future breeding programmes in the herd. Mr Davidson has noted the feeds for their strong quality, cutting edge technology and a support system. “Living on the island brings some real challenges and the climate can be very demanding with long, tough winters.” But the weather is not the only test as all imports onto the island for feed, fertiliser and fuel have an import
charge, so calculations are important.


“Everything to come on and go off the island has a charge, so this can be a worry with costs rising.” Challenging it may be, but the judging panel for last year’s Beef Farmer of the Year were unanimous in their praise for Colin’s willingness to change, invest and take risks to improve his business, and the innovation he has used – based on sustainability – has produced positive results. “It has been a real honour to win the award and be recognised within the industry. This has created an interest in the stock we produce, especially bulls. “I have always felt it is important to keep on moving forward when it comes to innovation and I like to keep up with new ideas.”