New Zealand composites might be alien to the UK's sheep stratification system, but they certainly pack a punch when it comes to productivity at Sharpitlaw, Kelso – home of AgriScot’s 2019 Sheep Farm of the Year.

Famed for it’s highly prized Bartlehill pedigree Suffolk flock in the 1980s and 90s, when run by Willum Stewart and his wife Jenny, son Kevin has taken business to a new level by concentrating on a grass-based system and the Highlander to increase productivity with reduced costs.

With the enterprise having more than doubled in size over the past 20 years, Kevin now farms 1200+ Highlander ewes on 1200 acres with assistance from shepherd Lewis Matheson.

Production is grass-based with 42% of the lamb crop finished solely off grass and 30% from stubble turnips with the remaining 23% being tup lambs wintered on forages for selling the following year as breeding rams.

But, in contrast to most units which buy in large numbers of females when changing policy, Kevin built up his Highlander flock from Suffolk and Lleyn ewes.

“I always wanted a closed unit and a flock of sheep that were easy to manage,” he said.

“Initially we AI’d our Suffolk ewes with New Zealand Suffolk semen and then bought a few pedigree Lleyns because they were also MV accredited to increase productivity and sell shearlings at Carlisle.

“When Marks and Spencers then came up with a scheme offering a premium for Highland and Primera lambs in 2006/7, we bought six Highlander tups which worked well over the Lleyn ewes.”

Fourteen years down the line and having bred up his Highlander females from the original flock, Kevin is confident the this predominantly maternal Kiwi composite is the way forward for his grass-based system.

“The big benefits of the breed are they are more versatile than the Lleyn and they mend up well after lambing. We don’t get the broken mouths with the Highlander and they last longer – we’ve got 155 five and six-crop Highlander ewes that ran with the tup last year and our replacement rate is down to 18%,” Kevin.

He also pointing out that the Highlander produces more consistent lamb crops with scanned lambing percentage virtually always working out at about 186% of which 13-14% are made up of triplets with a similar number of singles.

More impressive is the fact that marking and sale percentages hold up well at 173% and 168% respectively, with minimal inputs – and that’s lambing outside too.

Although lambed mid-April outside, all ewes are clipped and housed early January either in straw-bedded courts in existing sheds or poly tunnels, in groups of 200-250.

All are fed the one high quality round bale silage in ring feeders, before scanning at the end of February after which triplet and gimmers are split off from the main flock for additional nutrition in the form of feed blocks. Single-bearing ewes are also shed off at the same time and fed a mixture of silage and straw.

Ewes are set stocked and put out to grass with feed blocks around March 25, for lambing three weeks later in fields which are often green and fresh having been clear of sheep for a good three months.

Triplets and single-bearing ewes and all in-lamb hoggs are nevertheless brought back inside to lamb nearer their due date, thereby enabling additional lambs to be twinned on.

In saying that, Kevin has also discovered that the Highlander is more than capable of rearing three provided the lambs have access to creep feed.

“Highlander ewes are easy lambed outside as you just leave them to get on with it. There are rarely any problems as the lambs are quick to get to their feet and suckle and the ewes are great mothers.

“I really don’t have to go near them although since we introduced a recorded flock of 300 ewes, there is a bit more work tagging and weighing all the lambs from these ewes at birth.”

While 800 of the 1200 Highlander ewe flock is bred pure to breed replacement females and breeding rams and ewe lambs, the remainder are tupped to an Aberfield of which all progeny is finished. They pretty much produce the perfect carcase too with last year’s lamb crop comprising 1060 head of pure Highlander and Aberfield cross Highlander lambs yielding a 20.3kg average carcase of which 92% graded Rs and Us.

This compares to the 1099 lambs sold finished in 2011 which included Suffolk, Lleyn and Highlander crosses that left a 19.1kg average carcase.

While production has increased, input costs have also decreased with Highlander ewes costing less than £2.14 per head to the tup.

With the growing popularity of New Zealand composites, Kevin is able to obtain a premium for breeding stock too, either sold privately or at his on-farm sale. Last year, 142 shearling rams to include Highlander, Aberblack and Abermax tups were cashed to average £810.

“Sheep farming is certainly a lot more enjoyable now that we have a system that is far less intensive and a lot more sustainable being grass-based. Our EID race and stick reader also makes life so much easier to record growth rates and productivity,” concluded Kevin .

FARM facts

Family farm run by Kevin Stewart his wife Pat a principle teacher of science at Kelso High School and Kevin’s parents, Willum (90) and Jenny Stewart. Business relies on 1200acres of arable/grassland at Springhill, Linton Burnfoot and Gattonside Mains between Coldstream and Kelso, rising from sea-level to 1000ft above sea-level.

Family – Eldest son Hamish manages 6000acre Ragley Hall Farms in Warwickshire; Rosie, an accountant for Moredun Science Foundation and Kevin, rural adviser with Laurence Gould Partnership, Dunfermline.

Livestock numbers comprise 1200 Highlander ewes of which 800 are bred pure to include 300 recorded to breed replacement females and breeding rams and females to sell at on farm sale or privately. Remaining 400 crossed to Aberfield composite ram with all progeny finished off grass or stubble turnips/pellets. Ewes in wintered from January through to end of March and lambed outdoors. Single and triplet-bearing ewes lambed inside.

Small flock of 30 pedigree Suffolk ewes registered under Bartlehill prefix run alongside 180 Abermax ewes (white-faced fast growing, terminal sire composite breed) and 60 Aberblacks (similar composite terminal sire breed but black-faced).

Contract rear 200 tup lambs/hoggs for Innovis. Grazing cattle bought in during the summer to make use of extra grass.

Cropping made up of a small acreage of winter/spring cereals to provide home-produced straw, stubble turnips and regular grass reseeds producing dairy-quality bale silage to reduce need to buy in concentrates. All silage is harvested by contractors with an additive applied to reduce risk of listeriosis.

ONTHE spot

Best advice – Old shepherd, Will Young always said: “You’ve got to look after them all, not the best ones,” and we do.

Most profitable enterprise – Oldest house in Kelso ‘The Turret House,’ built in the 1600s and used as a holiday house.

Biggest achievement – Breeding pedigree Suffolk sheep that could lamb and suckle themselves in 2005/6 and winning AgriScot Sheep Farm of the Year.

Preparation for Brexit – Continually reducing costs and increasing production. Biomas boiler which has ‘transformed’ heating in farm cottages and significantly reduced costs; rent out cottages, holiday house in Kelso. Contract rear 200 Innovis rams from speaning through to sale time following September.

Future goals – To run a profitable farming business without subsidies which will dependent on whether UK Government is able to get a favourable trading deal with the EU post Brexit.