FARMING is a tricky business when you are constantly battling against mother nature, ever increasing input costs and no guarantee of an end price or a positive future for the industry, but through breeding quality stock and producing home-grown feed, it can be reasonably sustainable. 
Well-known Caithness farmers, Willie Barnetson and sons, James and William, who run 200 suckler cows, 900 breeding ewes and grow 250 acres of cereals at Lynegar, a 1160-acre unit based at Watten, nine miles from Wick, have made several improvements and changes over the years to fit their system, which has resulted in less labour and increased output. 

The Scottish Farmer:
But although farming in a good, close-knit farming community – like many others in the north of the country – it’s the challenging weather conditions and a later growing season that makes seasonal work that bit harder.
“We lamb everything inside now, as in the past we’ve suffered losses due to March and April snow showers, or heavy wind and rain. It’s just not worth it when you’ve experienced a year of losing two-week-old lambs,” said the fourth generation eldest, James, who is mainly focused on the livestock enterprises, with help from part-time employee, Alan Simpson.
“There’s a shorter window for the likes of silage, sowing and harvest too, so when the weather is good you have to go,” added youngest son, William, who completed a degree in agriculture at Craibstone several years ago and now carries out all machinery work on the farm, with assisted help from ex tractor man of 50 years, George MacKay. 
Over the years at Lynegar, the Barnetsons have significantly increased cattle numbers in the last decade, with sheep numbers now slightly up too. 
“We used to run 120 cows, but from 2003 onwards we began increasing the herd. Back then, all the progeny was sold as stores but since expanding the farm steading and reseeding around 60 acres each year, everything is finished, apart from a small proportion of Charolais and Simmental-sired calves which go store,” explained James.
“The store trade was just too volatile to rely on at times,” added Willie. “Although we are now paying hefty haulage costs for sending away finished cattle, at least we are getting a better value for money as we’ve bred them and we’re knocking out the middle man.”
Having adjusted to market demands, the family use a few breeds within their closed suckler herd. The Aberdeen-Angus is the predominant sire and put to 140 females, including the 30 replacement heifers which are brought into the herd each year. The remaining 90 includes 60 to the Simmental and 30 to the Charolais. 
On the pedigree side, seven Aberdeen-Angus cows under the Lynegar prefix have produced some tremendous stock bulls, including the latest sire, Lynegar Cruise, a two-year-old bull backed fully by home-bred genetics. 
“The Aberdeen-Angus is good for easy calving and easy management but we like to criss cross with the Simmental for hybrid vigour and size of frame, while the Charolais is good for selling more of an attractive store animal,” said James, commenting that the majority of Simmental and Charolais sired calves are sold through the store ring annually at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Quoybrae show and sale in September, aged between 14 and 16 months. 
They often go on and sell well too with last year’s draw levelling at 530kg and cashing in to average £1170.
The Aberdeen-Angus steers which are finished from December through to April are sold through local co-op, Caithness Livestock Breeders, and go to McIntosh Donald, Portlethen, and AK Stoddard, Ayr. The team at Lynegar believe the Angus does just as well, if not better than other breeds.
“There can be a premium of between 5-20p per kg for Aberdeen-Angus cattle, depending on the market at time of sale. Their natural fleshing ability allows us to finish them on fewer concentrates and at between 360 to 380kg deadweight compared to other breeds,” said James. 
Last year’s Aberdeen-Angus steers killed out at an average of 387kg deadweight and levelled at £1447, or 3.74p per kg at 623 days. Impressively, 37% of them produced U grades. 
On top of the finished cattle, the A-A and Simmy bulling heifers are sold privately, with many going to repeat buyers.
The Barnetsons have selected on fairly low maintenance breeds too, and with all sheds now fitted with locking yokes and a new cattle crowder purchased for handling the cattle, they’re easy managed and well-tempered. 
Calving is aimed at being kept in a fairly tight period, kicking off at the end of April and usually finishing up by mid-July. 
They all calve outside in fields surrounding the house and calves are tagged within one day using a cow and calf catcher. If the weather is good up until October, the cows and calves are left there before coming inside, housed between slats and straw-bedded courts.

The Scottish Farmer:
Low maintenance in terms of feeding and fortunate to be able to rely on home-grown feed, cows are fed a TMR ration of silage, straw and minerals, while calves are introduced to silage, barley and minerals. Weaning takes place during January and if the Caithness weather plays fair, weaned calves go out onto grass the second half of May, supplemented by mineral buckets.
Although using home-bred Angus bulls, the Barnetsons still buy in stock bulls either privately or at United Auctions, Stirling. At Stirling, in 2010, they purchased the Simmental, Denzies Warrior, for 9000gns. He really showed the true value of criss-crossing as he has bred some impressive followers which were then crossed back to the Angus bull. In turn, these produced the recent impressive U-graded cattle. 
As the beef sector at Lynegar has been altered to increase productivity, so to has the sheep enterprise – with all lambs finished off grass and forage rape.
“The beauty of sheep is that they’re fairly easy to get into and make a pound or two, compared to the high costs of cattle, feeding and modern machinery.
“At least when selling fat lambs direct to the slaughterhouse there’s a bit more certainty and you know roughly what you are going to receive back,” commented Willie.
Commercially, some 250 North Country Cheviot Lairg-type ewes are crossed with the Suffolk and Texel and lamb in April to produce ewe lambs for the main commercial flock of 300 Suffolk cross North Country Cheviots and 300 Texel cross North Country Cheviot ewes. Those cross ewes are the fuel to producing quality, quickly-finished lambs which also go to McIntosh Donald. They scanned at 173% last year and an impressive 160% at weaning.  
“We like using Suffolk and the Texel sires as they produce growthy lambs, more so the Suffolk. It seems to produce a good finished lamb with plenty length and scale when crossed to any breed,” said Willie.
That certainly goes to show at Lynegar, as each year more than 1000 lambs are fattened by Christmas, with just a few carried onto the spring. Finished on forage rape and Italian ryegrass – a mix which has proved well for the last 10 years – the first draw are away within the first week of July. 

The Scottish Farmer:
Last year, 1100 lambs sold to McIntosh Donald, averaging 20kg deadweight and to an average of £77.17. Year on year, lambs produce mainly U and R grades, with a few Es.  
With lambing commencing in mid-March for the commercial flock, they are brought inside at the beginning of the month and fed on a TMR ration and turned out according to weather. They produced fairly good scanning and weaning percentages last year too, scanning at 190% and weaning at 176%. 
On the other side of the coin, Suffolk and Texel stock tups used on the commercial flock are mainly home-bred from the two pedigree flocks of 30 Suffolk ewes and five Texel ewes which lamb in February. 
Both pedigree flocks have made their mark in the sale ring, with shearlings sold at Quoybrae, usually to local commercial breeders, many of which are repeat customers. In the past, Suffolks have averaged £622, while Texels have levelled at £500.

The Scottish Farmer:
Sires for the pedigree flocks are sourced at tup sales, with Texels bought at Lanark and Suffolks at Stirling. 
“We tend to buy big, long, wide tups and they must have good skins for selling progeny in Caithness, as well as a good carcase which will eventually produce a good prime lamb,” he added.
Each year, 260 ewe hoggs are kept as replacements and wintered on eight acres of swedes. They select ewe lambs mainly on the mother’s track record and aim to produce a smaller ewe that is easier kept. 
It’s not just the sale ring where there has been success with Lynegar-bred sheep, as they have picked up many tickets in the show ring, including championships in the Border Leicester, commercial and Half-bred sections at the Highland. 
At their local Caithness County Show, they’ve been commercial champion for six years out of seven with either Half-bred, Suffolk cross or Texel cross ewes and their lambs at foot. And in 2012 and 2015, they won the inter-breed sheep title.

The Scottish Farmer:
That superior stockmanship allied to constant eyeing what is happening in their ever-changing, evolving industry, means that you can be rest assured, the Barnetsons always aim for and achieve the best results for their business.