This week sees the introduction of our new Field Margins columnists, Neil and Debbie McGowan, who farm at Incheoch – the 2018 AgriScot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year, just outside Alyth.

They along with our other three Field Margins columnists, will not only be focusing on the trials and tribulations of surviving the continued ongoing uncertainties surrounding Brexit but also the ever changing farmgate prices and of course, Scotland's extremely unpredictable weather.

By Neil McGowan

Where the River Isla tumbles over the Highland Faultline at the ‘Reekie Linn’, leaving the boniest of the Angus Glens before it opens out into the fertile Vale of Strathmore lies Incheoch. This year, 2019, marks 25 years of the McGowan family farming this upland livestock unit as a family partnership.

Someone told me once that every farm has an unfair advantage – and you need to find it and exploit it. Incheoch is very good in a dry year, and that has happened twice now in our 25 years! Second to that is found in the people here - a feverish passion for breeding thrifty cows and ewes. Our mission statement is ‘to produce functional, efficient and robust breeding stock’.

The farm is 1200 acres in total, make up of half permanent pasture and rough grazing, and half ploughable. Of the better ground one third is long term grass and the rest split between short term grass, forage crops and spring barley which is let out. A grazing lease for some of the ewes further up the glen adds a further 250 acres.

The arable ground tends to be quite heavy but we have found that it has stood up to ewes strip grazing swedes through the winter. Red clover leys have been a very good break crop on a part of the farm that has been cropped too much in the past with those thick roots breaking up ground that previously needed either a lot of frost or diesel and metal in the spring. Red clover silage is easy on both the fertiliser bill and feed bill for wintering calves, and aftermaths give finishing lambs a great boost.

We have had mixed success at stitching in new grasses to permanent pastures and continue with this while keeping up with lime, P and K. One of the challenges we have is to learn to utilise our grass better, and we have started to run stock in larger mobs, moving fields more often and making more use of temporary electric fence systems.

We are running just over 200 suckler cows and around 1300 breeding ewes, both self-replacing. Calves are wintered and steers sold store as yearlings and heifers kept to sell as breeders. Lambs not kept for breeding are all finished – but this week with what looks like a strong store trade and an uncertain future, we cashed one lot of 184 which averaged 30.7kg and sold at £54. I hope that in January when we should have finished selling lambs that I’ll look back and regret this decision. It seems good risk management at present.

One of the great things about our industry is that the whole family can be involved in some way – as we all are here, not least our children Tally (15) and Angus (13). Cattleman Jim Smith shares our enthusiasm for breeding good stock, and Brian McIldowie on a part-time basis compliments the team.

My parents, Finlay and Judy are still very involved with the farm and they have built up the cow herd. There are around 150 Luing cows – the 60 that went to Luing bulls this year have all calved at 2 years old to an Angus, and again at 3 to a Simmental so they have a bit of history before being considered to join the stud herd. They have also been selected on our own teat and udder score, calving interval along with how good a job they make of their calf. I think Luing type cows have a great deal to offer in terms of fertility and calving ease (which has got to be the biggest two drivers of output), and in terms of longevity and lower winter feed (the drivers for cost control), not to mention temperament – which make managing cattle a pleasure.

The Incheoch Simmental herd was established in 2015, following the dispersal of Finlay and Judy’s Dirnanean herd. The aim of the new herd is to breed maternal type bulls, reared on a low-input system sold from home. There are almost 40 cows here, that run with my sister, Clare’s few Angus cows.

Debbie was the Lleyn enthusiast, but we’ve all grown to like the hardy little ewes and they have gradually displaced the other crossbred systems we’ve tried previously. Apart from 100 pure Texels, all ewes are Lleyn, with just over half bred to the Texel. As with the cows, a strict recording system is in place to gather as much relevant data as we can and run it through our own program as well as using EBVs to help turn the data into information that can help us pick the ram with the correct balance of profit driving traits.

The current focus for the whole team is preparation for our on-farm ram and bull sale. This will be the 12th sale of grass-fed Texel and Lleyn rams and this year we have 97 entered to include14 bulls and 24 Sim Luing heifers. Selling on-farm allows us to rear the rams and bulls in a way which helps their fertility and longevity and gives buyers a chance to see them having been reared in a similar environment to where they expect their offspring to thrive.