Agricultural Adviser Alasdair Wyllie reports on progress with farming on Tristan as he leaves Tristan for the last time.

Agricultural Adviser's Final Report

Report from Agriculture Adviser Alasdair Wyllie

This is the fourth, and of course the final, 'Farming News' that I have put out in my time on Tristan. By the time this report is published, Bee and I should be on the Edinburgh returning to Cape Town, and leaving behind our Tristan friends and the farming challenges on the island.

I would like to use this page to summarise some of the steps that we have been able to take in the last 2¼ years, to outline the farming future which is now much more clear, and to make some suggestions to increase productivity.

Contented cattle grazing and lazing on American Fence, February 2019

Contented cattle grazing and lazing on American
Fence, February 2019

Firstly, the cattle. The decision to reduce the quota to one per household has been talked about for the last 40 years. I have no doubt at all that it was the right decision, and that it will result in better pastures and greater production of meat. It is only now, at the end of March, that we are coming up to the slaughter deadline for the new quota, and it will take at least three years before the reduced stock numbers are seen throughout the cattle population, including the youngstock. Provided that the situation is handled properly, the increased growth rates will result in one of two possibilities - either owners will decide to slaughter their steers younger than has been the case up to now, or legislation will catch up with the quicker maturity of the cattle to reduce the compulsory slaughter age. Either way, this will have the same result of having even fewer animals grazing at any one time. In turn, this will enable the Department to have better control over the pastures, and it should be that in four or five years time the island will be able to start cutting surplus grass for hay, resulting in a stock of hay for winter feed which in turn, of course, will result in even better growth rates. In my view this all heralds the most exciting period for the proper management of cattle on Tristan since the early days of man on the island.

Whereas steps towards the progress in productivity in the cattle are now in hand, the improvement in the sheep has not yet started, but it is now planned. It has now been finally decided to introduce new genetics to the sheep on the island by the use of AI, using semen of Cheviot rams from the UK. Sheep AI is quite different from cattle AI - in some regards it is more simple, and in other ways it is more complicated. The first sheep AI programme should be happening in a year's time, and islanders should be able to repeat the programme every three or four years, aimed at continuous improvement and increased productivity. The Cheviot breed was chosen because it is hardy (thus suitable for Tristan conditions), it has a good carcass quality, and it has excellent wool quality.

Spreading lime near Jenny's Watron.

Spreading lime near Jenny's Watron, new machinery
that could spread 20 tonnes per day.

Livestock are of course dependent on grass production. Almost all the soil on the island is extremely acid, with pH levels between 4.5 and 4.8. To start the process of pH correction, in the last two years 70 tonnes of lime has been spread on the pastures. Improvement in grass production is visible already. This is just the start of a large long-term programme. In round figures, 7 tonnes per hectare is needed on the 350 hectares of pasture, a total of 2,450 tonnes of lime.

Lime is not, of course, the only requirement for increased grass production. We also need to see a concerted programme of surface harrowing, and the regular application of fertiliser, particularly Nitrogen. Urea contains double the percentage of nitrogen of any other fertiliser available, thus it costs half the amount to ship compared with other fertilisers (per unit of nitrogen) and it is easier to handle and spread.

It has been an interesting two years as far as the Greenhouses are concerned. In the middle of 2017 a consignment of all sorts of horticultural equipment and materials was received, and this enabled the greenhouses to at last start to become properly productive. We successfully grew salad crops throughout the winter months, we grew a range of culinary herbs, we grew a range of ornamental plants for sale in the agri shop, and we germinated a large quantity of vegetable plants for islanders to grow-on. We have established the principle of achieving production in the greenhouses, but in the future it will be necessary to work hard to keep the momentum going to achieve maximum production all through the year.

Productive greenhouse on Tristan da Cunha, Winter 2017

In the last two years there have been two incidents in which the entire consignment of imported fruit and vegetables coming to the island shop had to be dumped. This highlights the necessity, for strategic reasons, of the island becoming as self-sufficient as possible. My Final Report illustrates a range of steps that can be taken to improve agricultural production on Tristan. This includes a proposal for the recycling of ground crayfish shells from the factory, which would undoubtedly help crop and grass production.

Bee and I would like to thank the people of Tristan for their exceptional hospitality and kindness to us during our time on the island. Best of luck for the future.

Right: A full, busy and productive greenhouse in the winter of 2017