Dumfries & Galloway Farmers Selected to Represent Scotland in Brisbane

Two Dumfries & Galloway farmers are among only four from Scotland chosen to represent their country at a major Commonwealth conference in Brisbane, Australia in October.

Katrina McDowall, 22, of Rerrick Park, Dundrennan won the Roy Watherston Memorial Trust travel scholarship to attend the Royal Agricultural Society Of The Commonwealth’s Conference and Michael Halliday, 38, of Croftjane, Penpont is one of three Next Generation delegates selected by the Royal Highland & Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS).

The Roy Watherston Memorial Trust, administered by the RHASS, was established to commemorate the life, work and achievements of the late Roy Watherston of Crichton Mains, Ford, Midlothian.

It funds the international travel and study of young Scots who use the experience to benefit and further their own farming practices or rural careers. Trust chairman Ray Watherston said the trustees believed Katrina would be an excellent ambassador for Scotland and for the trust.

The RHASS says the Brisbane conference will also provide a ‘life-enhancing’ experience for its three Next Generation scholars – Michael, Claire Hodge of Edinburgh and Barclay Hamilton of East Lothian – and Michael says he is looking forward to the opportunity to make contacts, network and share ideas with fellow farmers from 20 other Commonwealth countries.

Before taking part in the 26th biennial Commonwealth Agricultural Conference itself, the Scottish delegates will spend several days touring farms in the Brisbane area.

At very different stages of their careers, with different plans and ambitions, both Katrina and Michael say they are honoured and excited by this once in lifetime opportunity.

Settled and happy working on the family dairy farm, Rerrick Park, near Dundrennan, Katrina McDowall had no plans to travel when the chance to apply for the scholarship for the Brisbane conference was suggested to her.

But having previously worked for spells on dairy farms in Holland and America, she knew the value of visiting foreign countries to develop ideas and skills, and decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“The interview panel spoke to me about why I was farming and how the conference could benefit me. I was so nervous and thought I had no hope.”

But the Roy Watherston Memorial Trustees were obviously impressed by Katrina’s infectious passion for her chosen career and chose her as the successful candidate.

As well as visiting Australian farms before the Commonwealth conference, Katrina plans to spend three months on dairy farms in New Zealand afterwards: “It’ll be really hard for me to step away from the family farm but I’m going all that way and it’ll be good to see different ways of working.”

After graduating with a degree in agriculture from Newcastle University, Katrina spent three months working on a 1,500 cow dairy unit in Greenbay, Wisconsin and credits that experience with stimulating her ideas and ambitions for her family’s brand new dairy development at home.

“It was a real eye-opener. I learned so much. I ended up doing a lot of calf management there, which I am now in charge of at home, and I brought a lot of ideas for equipment and technology home with me. It was the best opportunity I could have had.”

By the time she went to university, Katrina was certain she wanted to work in agriculture and, knowing she was keen, the family decided to radically upgrade their dairy.

“Before the new development we were milking 180 cows at my grandparents’ farm, Girdstingwood, but it got to the stage we were either going to have to give up or re-invest heavily.

“So we applied for a SRDP [Scottish Rural Development Programme] grant to build a new dairy on a greenfield site here. We got a 50 per cent grant and the building began in 2009 while I was in Newcastle.

“It was amazing to get that financial help. We couldn’t have afforded to start from scratch otherwise and I don’t know what I’d have been doing now.”

The new dairy is a housed unit of 650 Holstein cows, milked three times a day in a herringbone parlour, with as much as 24,000 litres a day sold to Wiseman Dairies.

It’s what Katrina describes as a “high welfare system” – the cows are bedded on sand, in a large, open sided cubicle shed, with wide passages. Although the milking cows are never outside to graze, everything revolves around their health and comfort.

They are monitored closely and, partly, Katrina believes, due to special teat brushes she discovered in America, mastitis rates are low: “We have a thorough routine and each milking takes five and a half hours.”

Admitting to frustration at the often negative public perception of housed dairies, she says: “If I had a nice bed of sand and my food put in front of me, why would I want to go out into a soggy field?

“The really big ‘super-dairies’ have full time vets and way more staff, and that’s what these high yielding cows need, attention. People like to see cows in fields but they forget they have to walk in and out.

“With our system they are monitored so closely, if anything is wrong we know about it straight away. Holsteins give lots of milk but they are softer than the cows bred to be outside all the time.”

The Rerrick Park herd’s young stock are kept at Girdstingwood and the high level of care they receive matches their mothers’: “If you have made a lot of effort to get a good calf and then don’t look after it, it’s such a waste. That’s the future of your herd.

Katrina has been training up a member of staff to look after the young stock in her absence and says good staff is vital to the running of such a large dairy business: “We have a staff of 13, all different ages, speaking various languages,” she says. “You think you’re getting into working with animals but actually it’s just as much about working with people.”

When Katrina came back to Rerrick Park full time she found being the youngest farm worker, and female, did have its challenges but she was determined not to be seen as ‘the boss’s daughter’: “I wanted to be part of the team, proving myself in every job.”

As a child, Katrina shadowed her dad Fergus and believes she was born with a passion and instinct for farming: “It’s just in you. I had a natural draw to it, particularly to stock. I always loved it.”

And now, working with the Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET), Katrina inspires other children by hosting school parties at Rerrick Park: “Because I’m so passionate about farming, I think all kids should know about where their food comes from.”

She believes her own education and personal development will benefit hugely from the conference and experiencing farming in Australia and New Zealand: “It’s amazing to get this chance to go, with all these Commonwealth countries getting together,  discussing topics which influence our industry.

“Meeting different people in agriculture is always so interesting. I’ll have so much to learn about what they do and why.” And although it’s hard to see how this is possible, she adds: “Hopefully I’ll come back even more enthused.”