When Burns wrote: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley,” I am pretty sure it was a reflection of his personal and family experiences of farming in Scotland.

The simple fact is, that no matter how well you plan, there is no guarantee of success. This does not mean, however, that we should not make plans in the first place.

As far as growing and utilising home-grown feed at Pirntaton, the weather of the past 12 months has very much been a case in point.

The very dry spring of 2020 had a real knock-on effect on the amount of pasture grown and conserved. With six years of accurate pasture measurements on record, it has become clear that years with a slow start to grass growth, which continues into the period of what should be peak growth, see total yield for the year tending to never quite catch up.

After some very impressive results growing fodder beet in 2019, we were brought back to earth with a bump in 2020, with yields of nine tonnes of DM/ha being only 50% of the year previous.

This has been enough to see us switch completely to Swedes as the mainstay for our winter rations for sheep going forward. Consistent yields of 10-12 tonnes of DM/ha ‘saved our bacon’ this year, especially as our ‘Plan B’ of high-quality silage was also in short supply.

Little did we know that 12 months later we would be faced with very similar weather conditions. We eventually managed our first pasture walk on February 24, when the snow finally cleared from most of the farm.

Grass had been largely protected from the worst of the cold by the snow, but it was no surprise when a fortnight later, the bitterly cold winds of the first half of March, had a measurable negative effect on pasture covers.

A kinder second half of March and grass growth of nearly 8kg/day, fooled us into thinking that everything was back on track to have our ewes onto a grass rotation during the first week in April, as the perfect preparation for lambing starting on the 22nd.

We have grown to appreciate that spring grass, if in adequate quantities, provides all the nutritional requirements for our twin bearing ewes. Our switch to a later lambing date, has generally seen these ewes’ feed demand in late pregnancy being satisfied from grass alone.

Bearing in mind that her demand will nearly double as soon as she lambs, grass growth by early May should be achieving the 35kg DM/ha/day required to feed our ewes, stocked at nine ewes/ha.

However, with pasture growth of less than 1kg DM/day for the first two weeks in April, we had to fall back to ‘Plan C’, with all our twin and triplet bearing ewes put back on silage and having to introduce 400g/day of ewe rolls for a couple of weeks, proving yet again that it pays us dividends having ewes trained to eat concentrates as ewe hoggs.

At the time of writing, we are about to set-stock our ewes onto lambing paddocks, just three days before due date, rather than the usual 21, whilst praying for more heat and a bit of moisture.

Despite having decent grass covers set up for them, turnout of yearling cattle has been postponed until pasture growth improves. Yearling deer, however, have been turned out this last week. The time required to bolus and weigh them would prove difficult to find through lambing.

Turnout weights were a bit of a mixed bag. Weaning weights had been significantly lighter than previously, but hind calves wintered well and were a fraction under 70kg. Stags wintered slightly less well and went out at just over 80kg.

Pasture covers for them are no more than adequate and will require over 1kg/day of supplement for at least their first 30 days at grass. This use of concentrate as a ‘safety net’, or to support grass rotations, is a far cry from where we had been previously, where dependence on it was heavy to say the least.

Our forage-based system requires significantly more time spent planning than just another quick call to the feed merchant, but cost savings more than justify it.

The first couple of pasture walks in a year are also a great time to finalise the selection paddocks for winter cropping. The poorest performers really stand out at this time of year. As well as our annual tranche of GPS soil sampling on around 20% of the farm, we went to town on soil analysis of paddocks ear-marked for winter crop.

I am keen to build a much more accurate picture of our soil types and health as well as how our farming practices are affecting levels of organic matter and soil carbon. With OM levels of these fields averaging over 10%, I think we need to be careful that future ag policy does not end up ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’.

At first glance, it seems that highly productive livestock farming can support, and even regenerate, healthy soils as well as the rural economy.

Plans are also in place to sow an arable silage mix along with most of our grass reseeds this year and will enable us to take an early cut of very high-quality silage, with the aim of replacing some of the concentrates in our winter rations for beef and deer calves.

Taking a lead from some of our organic farming friends, I hope the allelopathic properties of oats in the mix will help establish our multi-species leys with a much lower weed challenge.

With so many changes required as we go along and the constant need for flexibility, you could be fooled into wondering if all the effort is worthwhile, but as Winston Churchill said: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential”.


Our new Field Margins columnist, Jim Logan farms 630ha, effectively a 520ha upland livestock unit rising to 1700ft above sea-level in the Scottish Borders at Pirntaton, Stow, which is home to 1650 breeding ewes, 120 suckler cows and 330 red deer hinds.

Having previously run an extremely profitable pedigree beef and sheep unit, the family business is now based on breeding easier managed home-bred replacement females and finishing all progeny on a rotational grazing system.