While the vast majority of farmers are hesitantly awaiting this year's lamb crop, the 2019 lambing is almost over for Suffolk sheep breeder, Scott Brown from Woodhead Farm in Gorebridge, Midlothian, who is already reflecting on ways to improve performance next year.

Having left his family’s 760-acre mixed arable and sheep farm in Rosewell, Midlothian in 1997 to work full time in sheep AI, Scott went on to a sales career before joining the Moredun Foundation in 2008 as a regional advisor.

Alongside this, Scott and his brother Gavin, also established the Capielaw pedigree Suffolk flock, built from a purchase at the Malton flock dispersal sale in 1997. “I always wanted to be involved in the practical level of sheep farming but knowing that it would be on a small scale, knew I had to focus on quality and building a reputation for commercial sales.

Scott shows his sheep at local events and sells his tups at the Kelso Ram Sales.

“To get stock ready for the showring, the ram sales and work full time, I need protocols that are simple, effective and reliable," said Scott.

"Nutrition is the foundation for good health and performance, so I implement practices that ensure every animal is provided sufficient nutrients to maximise their potential. At this scale, and aiming for premium ram sales, there is little room for error – we have to get it right.”

He added. “Primarily, I focus on what the market wants and aim to produce it as efficiently as possible. This requires not only a focus on costs but utilisation. Over the past 30 years, I think all farmers have cut costs as much as possible; everything has been stripped back. Now it has to be about ensuring you get a return for all the costs you incur."

One of the biggest challenges in sheep farming he said is knowing what deficiencies are in your flock has and balancing them accordingly.

"Six years ago, I was having issues with lamb performance in May. They did great until then, and then with the flush of grass, they couldn’t utilise the energy, which made me take a detailed look at the nutrition.

"Suffolk sheep are often short of copper and we are also low in selenium. I tried drenches, but they only had a short-term improvement, so introduced a bolus twice a year so I knew the requirements were being met. We now routinely bolus ewes six weeks pre-lambing and early May when we wean the lambs. Lambs are given a bolus at 20kg and around October time," said Scott who has noticed a difference in his sheep within days of administering the boluses.

"With Suffolk’s you can even see the hair of their faces change – they get blacker – they look healthier and results show they perform better. Since we started bolusing our lambs with copper, the dagginess has stopped and the daily liveweight gain has dramatically increased.

“Selenium cover is also essential within our flock to address the very high clostridial challenge we have at our farm. Getting these levels right, underpins the immune system and ensures a good response to the vaccines we use.

“With a system that requires a tight lambing period such as mine, good fertility is absolutely crucial. As trace elements play such an important role in this, it’s important I have a system that takes the unknowns out – I need to know all animals are being provided with the necessary nutrition. Together with a preventive health plan, I can be confident that I am doing my best in this area to maximise performance.”

Jim Adair from Animax who works with Scott adds, “Scott is always looking ahead on where he could improve. He’s very market driven and values the use of detailed data to analyse his business performance and improve efficiencies such as the use of CT scans on his lambs in June to build his performance index data and assess muscle ratios and killing out percentages

Scott is also proactive in adopting new systems to improve his business and understands fully the benefits of a focussed nutrition approach, especially in terms of trace element supplementation.

"Often the clinical signs of a dietary deficiency can be subtle but the economic impact on a business can be significant and Scott has experienced this. As farm businesses continue to adapt to new markets, it is an area that warrants close attention for farmers looking to maximise animal performance and improve returns,” said Mr Adair.

Looking to the future of the breed, Scott explained “I chose the Suffolk for its easy fleshing, fast growth and good carcass. As a breed it offers great versatility and is a good terminal and maternal sire. The characteristic that I feel distinguishes it in new markets is the marbling of the meat which gives it a superior taste.

“We need to future proof our product and ensure we produce a meat that is enjoyable and consistent. Success will come from a demand from repeat buyers and to offer value and I believe the Suffolk offers this but only together with a transparency that buyers now require. There are many advantages of data collection for assessing performance, but it is now also becoming a prerequisite from buyers looking for animals with greater efficiency drivers. This needs addressing in both the commercial and pedigree sectors of the industry.”

It seems his views are being shared not only in the UK, but through the growing number of international buyers that are interested in the breed. Recognising the achievements of Scott’s flock, he is now seeing the demand, particularly from mainland Europe, grow as buyers are acknowledging the suitability of the Suffolk breed for global consumers.

“It's important we stay ahead and look at ways to improve. Killing out percentage is my key focus now, considering genetic improvements and also looking at lambing percentages through selecting ewes that all more prolific – all should lead to a stronger business for the future.

“I believe the sheep industry is going to change beyond belief in the next decade and without question the most sustainable sheep enterprises are going to be those on a grass-based system and the Suffolk breed is well placed to embrace this change given its performance and speed of finishing off grass. But that optimal performance can only be achieved if it is backed up with a sound trace element program.”