RISS farmer focus: Murray Cooper

Murray Cooper was part of the organic oilseed rape RISS group, which became the SCOCAN project, trying to grow the crop on a commercial scale for the first time in the UK

Mixed organic farmer Murray Cooper has 165 hectares at Mains of Thornton, near Inverurie, and 120ha that he farms non-organically with his father, Leslie, near Oldmeldrum.

Murray was part of the organic oilseed rape RISS group, which became the Scottish Organic Canola (SCOCAN) project. The group of organic farmers in north-east Scotland are trying to grow organic oilseed rape on a commercial scale, to supply local feed processor Norvite, who would turn the crop into animal feed and oil for human consumption.

Murray says he’s taking a risk in trying to grow this notoriously difficult crop, but he’s happy to be giving it a go. He says:

“I’ve planted a quarter of our normal cropping area with winter oilseed rape – that’s a lot of money to lose! But I and others had been speaking to Norvite about it for four or five years, and I like a challenge. The RISS group gave us the push to do something about it, and the trip to Sweden gave us the confidence to give it a go.

“There’s five of us now, including Chris Gospel at Auchmacleddie and Gordon Whiteford of Lower Mill of Tynett, and we’ve planted between 10 and 35 acres each, around 75 acres altogether. We’re touch on WhatsApp and we’ve two more open demo days to show what we’re doing.

“We are all using different sowing techniques - Gordon’s follows carrots, is sown with white clover, and he may inter-row sow peas in the spring.  Chris’s follows grass and has five different oilseed rape varieties. I min-tilled behind winter oats and got a heavy crop from volunteer oats [seed from the previous harvest], so I’ll probably leave them in and dress out the oilseed rape. It’s potentially a good mixture that I’m accidentally trialling!

Picture: Surveying the good-looking crop at Auchmacleddie at the first SCOCAN meeting in January 

“The fact that we’re all doing something different and we’ve got freedom to do what we think might work for us is great – for us and prospective growers. It’s essentially five different field-scale trials with up to five variants within. Then we’ve got agronomist Andy Cheetham at Ceres Agri Services doing soil and tissue tests and making recommendations, and Robin Walker of SRUC facilitating.

“What we’ve learned so far is the early sowing date really makes a big difference – Chris planted on August 12 and I believe everyone else after Aug 28, and his could rival any conventional crop. Hybrid varieties look well on top, although they say it’s what’s below that matters.

"I bought a second-hand machine from Sweden that does sowing (including interrow sowing and fertiliser) and weeding. The sowing’s working well, I’m still learning on the weeding and will hopefully get my confidence up once the ground dries up again! We plan to use it on the conventional farm to reduce chemical use in the fodder beet and turnips.

Picture: Murray's Gothia Redskap System Chameleon is the first in Scotland

“If you believe the agronomist there’s 4.5 tonnes per hectare potential in the soil, but I’ll be happy to get 1.5-2.5 tonne per hectare, and the volunteer oats likely to yield four tonnes per hectare. Oilseed rape is worth £700 a tonne of feed market value, milling oats £270 a tonne, so potentially a good return for very little cost.

“Norvite will buy the whole crop, crush it and turn it into oil and meal. The rewards could be very lucrative if we can establish a market for oil for human consumption, hopefully we’ll get a bonus above the feed value. And we won’t have to buy in soya from abroad - I’ll buy back meal instead of soya for my cattle. It’ll cost about the same but will have the same nutritional value and, importantly for me, far less of a carbon footprint.

“Plus we’ll have peace of mind that what it says on the label is in the bag, grown on our doorstep.”

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