Precision decisions drive performance in AgriScot’s Sheep Farm of the Year

COLLECTING data and then using it to their advantage is helping to improve the performance and long-term sustainability of Scotland’s Sheep Farm of the Year recently crowned at the recent AgriScot Awards ceremony.

Livestock manager Owen Gray and his team at Saughland Farm in Lothians carefully record the performance of ewes and lambs, enabling them to identify the best stock and select accordingly. Their ultimate goal is to reduce reliance on the shepherd, maintain digitization, maximize growth rates, and reduce days to slaughter.

“Recording at lambing indicated that the previous breed had a high birth weight and lacked mothering ability, which caused lambs to get stuck and ewes to leave lambs after birth. This tells us switched to the Romney type,” Gray explained, so all the sheep have now been crossed with a Romney from New Zealand.

Lambing attendance, maternal instinct, weight over eight weeks and monthly weight gain thereafter are also recorded, with the top 600 lambs selected for tup. Only lambs full of ewes are kept for “flock A” to produce replacements, while empty individuals are finished. This helps increase herd fertility, Gray said.

“Flock B” includes “backslidden” ewes from “Flock A”, such as those who have celibate more than twice in their lifetime, or any other issues impacting production. These are all set to a terminal bull.

Mr Gray believed that recording was an essential tool for the industry, with himself and farm manager Ben McClymont passionate about transferring knowledge to the wider industry. “One of our main goals is to show the wider farming community the benefits of Signet registration, using Signet registered rams and, at the very least, the benefits of removing bad performers from the herd,” added Mr. Gray.

In an effort to reduce the risk of disease from purchasing terminal tups and produce a terminal sire suitable for their system, the team had recently started a high EBV Suffolk herd. Mr Gray explained: ‘Our main focus with Suffolks is to manage them commercially, being tough enough on them and breeding something that doesn’t compromise growth or carcass quality, and with a need for intervention of a minimal shepherd. We’ll be monitoring this through CT scans, Bookmark recording, and performance-based decisions.

Selecting their home-raised tups reflects a desire to achieve a faster slaughter period, which will ultimately help reduce the carbon footprint of the farm. Mr. McClymont added: “As a management team, this is something we are going to do more of. We are currently working on our own carbon footprint to set our own targets.

Being as self-sufficient as possible and creating a forage-based system is one of those environmental goals. The ewes are led on grass at the time of pushing, before spending the winter on rutabagas and fodder beets.

This year, there are plans to stop fodder beet cultivation after finding that frost damage was killing the leaf, reducing the protein content of the crop and negatively impacting the nutrition of ewes before the lambing. Only ewes carrying triplets received concentrated pre-lambing, while most lambs are finished on grass.

Last year, Mr Gray decided to reassess the grassland management strategy after routine monitoring showed that lamb growth rates were compromised in an intensive rotational grazing system. Ewes and lambs are now seeded until the lambs are eight weeks old, before moving to rotational grazing.

To maintain pasture quality, cattle are strip-grazed in the same field where ewes are seeded. This strip is moved and fenced regularly to maintain the quality of the grass. Lambs and calves are allowed to graze under the wire mesh, which promotes growth rates. In fact, the performance of ewes and lambs benefited (see box).

Mr Gray added: “On average, the 2021 weaning weights were very high compared to 2020. They have increased by 4 kg compared to the rotational grazing regime and we have managed to finish more lambs and to increase the sale value.

The team also wants to work with arable crop producers to improve soil quality and create a complementary forage supply. A nearby farm rents arable land in Saughland and grows a range of cover crops to prevent soil erosion.

Cattle and sheep graze on these crops to help boost soil fertility, while reducing machinery and housing costs.

BOX 1:

Farm Facts:

• Where: Saughland Farm, Lothians.

• Land: 240ha of meadows (including fodder crops), 50ha of crops, 40ha of woods and hedges.

• Sheep herd: 1,500 ewes and 400 lambs.

• Breeds: Romney and Aberfield New Zealand composite ewes divided into A and B flocks. A flock produces breeding lambs, flock B goes to a terminal bull. Lambs sold in store or 19 kg dead weight, average R3L

• Thoroughbred: new high EBV Suffolk herd to produce bulls

• Management: Focus on herd health, work with veterinarians and research institutes. Only use dewormers and antibiotics when necessary.

• Cattle: 100 Hereford suckler cows crossed Aberdeen Angus

• Diversification: Business center, farm shop, residential lodges, lodges and furniture storage.

BOX 2:

Performance Highlights:

• Plus a 4 kg increase in weaning weight since switching to a less intensive rotational grazing system of sheep with cattle.

• A 181% ewe sweeping percentage – compared to 163% in 2020 following the change in pasture management.

• Approximately 80% of lambs are grass-fed, with the remainder sold in store or creep-fed.