By Neil McGowan

You find us in the middle of sorting out the Lleyn ewes for rams. We are still at the kitchen table stage of the process, with lots of paper, books, spreadsheets and pedigrees.

We think that a bit of attention to detail here makes a big difference to the direction of the future flock – the more we work on balancing traits, the more uniform the flock gets. But the more we learn about our sheep, the more traits there are to balance. It gets complicated, but thankfully technology is helping: the magic box on the weigh crate has a good memory of exactly which sheep are still here and goes to which mob; the Signet inbreeding management tool has a better memory than I do for identifying second-cousins; and EBVs help manage some otherwise invisible traits.

This year we are using more of our own ram lambs on the flock – mostly to extend the influence of their mothers – and to have more control over the hurdles they have gone through. We recently completed the penultimate hurdle which involved grazing a pasture that has had sheep most of the summer and giving them a worm challenge, measured by taking regular faecal egg counts.

Once the mob count reached an average egg count of around 300 eggs per gram (epg), we individually sampled all the lambs. The 80 individual counts varied from two at over 1000 epg to four at zero.

Over the last five years or so, we must have taken more than 1000 of these individual tests from both Texel and Lleyn lambs, often with more of a range than this result. It astounds me that every time the results come back in the same pattern – the worst 25% are responsible for 50% of the pasture contamination, while the best 25% don't need treating.

I think there are three things to learn from this. Firstly, if we keep selecting and culling the right lambs, we should be able to reduce our reliance on worm drenches. Secondly, when we take a mob sample, we get a good indication of what is going on in the average lamb, but few individuals are average and some can be experiencing very different challenges. Lastly, we should be considering practicing ‘targeted selective treatment’ as being advocated by the Moredun – with EID tags, we can easily draft lambs on weight-gain and only treat the lambs which are toiling.

I mentioned that was the penultimate hurdle, the final one was this morning – another good eye-balling in the yards and we got 10 down to nine lambs to use, along with six older rams (including new ram ‘Help-ma-Boab’ from a previous column).

Lamb sales are gaining pace, the last lot to finish off the red clover were sold on Tuesday with the remainder now on a second break of rape. Sales are not exactly comparable to last year as we sold some store this summer (pre-Brexit)! Earlier lambs are back a bit – probably £5 – but the last lot are coming back at similar values to 2018. They have been a bit slower, with poorer aftermaths and wet conditions a contrast to last year. Weights have been back slightly but more in-spec with less over-weights and over-fats, although this might have more to do with the shorter waiting times to get lambs away.

It has been a great privilege to join the judging panel for the Agriscot Sheep Farmer of the Year award and visiting the three finalists. We enjoyed meeting people that were really passionate about their sheep and seeing how they tackled the unique challenges on their farms with their innovative solutions. There were lessons to learn from all farms – you don’t need a shiny race set-up to be able to dose a lot of sheep quickly, a sand floor on a sheep shed works, and I hadn’t realised ‘control of diffuse pollution’ could mean ‘getting help to concrete your yard’!

Being involved in the award highlighted the level of stockmanship we have on our very varied farms and systems, also the stewardship of landscape and willingness to improve the whole industry. We maybe should shout about this more as an industry, I know we are proud of it – because it’s pride that makes us go the extra yard!

The meat industry is taking a bit of a bashing on our environmental credentials – some of it probably justified. But moving the electric wire to give the ram hoggets their first break of turnips and seeing so many birds flying out of the crop (which is quite species rich, although not by design) to take cover in the young hedge that is taking shape – I feel that taking the blame for desertification and deforestation is a bit unfair. The world is changing – and politics is the least of it – but maybe not for the worse. Debbie has had some good orders at local food fairs for grass-finished native breed beef packs in the run up to Christmas. If the anti-meat lobby make people think more about where their food comes from, in Scotland we are in a better situation than most to take advantage of that opportunity.

Back to the kitchen table, which looks like the headquarters of an out-of-control dating agency. Attractive mature ewe with silky hair but a low eight-week weight WLTM tight skinned ram with a good muscle scan and an interest in worm egg counting for brief encounter (been running with teaser)!