Both younger members of the family come home tonight, having spent the last month exploring the jungles of Costa Rica on a school-based VSO-type trip which I think has involved digging groundworks for toilets, planting mangroves in a swamp, and doing some wildlife conservation work.

I have seen a few photos of strange-looking beasts – including a crocodile, and cattle of sorts – sent from the oldest child. The youngest has sent two messages in all that time. The first after three weeks, to say ‘best time ever and the second, only this morning – asking for roast beef and Yorkshire puddings for tea!

I wonder what they will have made of it all. I think they have let slip what they value most about home though!

On-farm, Luing yearling steers came through the yards for the first time since they were turned out and got a pour-on for worms. They are a very docile lot and really easy to move around (as long as you are not in a hurry)! They have spent the summer on parks keeping a bit of distance between groups of cows and are now spending a few days tidying up bull paddocks where our sale bulls are running and will then get onto aftermath to make sure they keep intakes up in order to finish.

At the end of March, when we drew the Luings to keep and sold the Simmental and Angus crosses, these lads were 435kg and they now average 550kg. That is a gain of 0.9kg/day which is a bit behind target but I am hoping to repeat last year’s marketing when half were shut in mid-September for a month and the others went straight off grass at the end of September. They have had no feed on grass at all and I am pleased that they all have enough cover to kill at any time.

Bearing in mind that the best eight were bulls and the strongest eight steers went store, the remaining 20 are missing the top performers. I still think we have added a good £400 to their value over the summer. We could have grazed another batch of cows in their place, but they would have to be wintered somehow.

They may be a good bit off maximum performance or indeed filling their potential, but with the economics of the beef job completely up in the air, I think our Luing steers are a good use of some excess summer grass while adding decent value without a lot of costs. In this new world we need to look at optimum returns, not just maximum revenue – just like a mini car – fuel economy, not just top speed.

I booked in a load of cull cows yesterday. Their calves will be to wean a bit too early, but I am concerned that there are a lot of cows going to come onto the market and the price seems strong enough to justify replacing a bit of milk with some creep for their calves when they have gone.

There seems to be a lot of chat about reducing cow numbers. The sums that we have done don’t stack up with fewer cows unless we cut some of the fixed costs – like selling the JCB – and nobody is a big fan of doing that. My economics teacher told us that, in the short term, as long as each unit of production was covering its variable costs and making a contribution towards fixed costs, you keep going. But I guess the short-term can’t go on forever. The long-term must be based on what suits the farm and what makes sense economically. The ‘economically’ bit is based on costs, markets, and government policy – and none of them seem very stable, so that leaves the only thing we have some control or certainty about – what suits the farm.

So, short term, we are maintaining cow numbers and tinkering to improve the system. One thing that has taken a while to get my head around is that, during the summer, ewes and lambs are the productive powerhouse of the farm and need to be treated as first-class citizens. Cows and calves may be more impressive to look at, but they need to be in back paddocks and tidying up rougher pastures. Ewes with twins need to be eating the sweeties in the best fields next to the road.

Lambs got an eight-week weight taken when ewes were shorn a couple of weeks ago and are now almost ready to wean. Regular weighings in the past have highlighted that if a good feed is available, it is better to wean lambs and get them onto it rather than have them compete with ewes for the best bite – the extra milk doesn’t seem to make up for reduced grass.

We take birthweights of all the pure Lleyn lambs, so we have a gain/day for all these lambs until shearing. With sire groups ranging from 240 to 330g/d (grams per day), the average was 270g/d and Texel cross lambs should be significantly more. We should be able to hold that level right through with plenty of good feed in front of them. That means that three lambs are gaining about the same as one bullock. I have only wintered two ewes to get these three lambs, and I had to winter a whole cow and her steer calf to get that bullock’s gain.

That’s maybe just back-of-the-envelope economics, but it highlighted to me who the priority mobs should be for here.

We have only had 19” of rain to date, 5” less than this time last year which suggests that very wet autumn to come if we are going to get anywhere near last year’s total of 47” which in itself was 6” less than in 2020. With that in mind, we were glad to pay for a bumper crop of winter barley straw cut, baled, and delivered in that hot week.

The holding capacity of the soil at Incheoch is very good which means that drier seasons like we have had so far this year really suit this farm. ‘Hay in the barn is worth more than money in the bank’ is an old saying that hopefully holds true this year. We have 800 round bales of beautiful hay gathered in as well as a full silage pit which was all secured in good order.

There was just short of six weeks between first and second cuts, although only two fields of red clover were cut both times. The strongest baled 6.5 bales to the acre as there was no more room in the pit. I think these bales, together with the hay, will be an important part of the winter diet for sheep as forage crops are not going to be up to budget!

The big focus now is preparing for the Working Genes ram and bull sale which is fast approaching on September 1. There are many nights getting data pulled together for catalogues and photographs and videos have become an important part of the event. Customers like to have some time to make initial selections based on figures and videos before seeing the stock. For us, that means skills in data-gathering have replaced feeding management and photography, and social media has replaced trimming and showing.

There are still 120 rams and 17 bulls that we want to have to look at their best, given the constraints we place on ourselves – rams only grass-fed and bulls just getting a bite of nuts running out in paddocks.

The sale structure is online again, but we are hoping to have as many folks on the farm where bidding can be done in person. We are looking forward to getting back to some of the normality that is the crazy mix of socialising, excitement and fun that a tup sale brings.

Neil McGowan