Increasing productivity sounds relatively easy when most commercial lowland ewe flocks can achieve scanning percentages of 200% plus. But, total up actual numbers sold and it’s a completely different ball game.

Such figures are often however, what differentiates the top producers from the average, with those extra saleable lambs, regardless of the quality, the bottom line between positive and negative profit margins.

For Bowhill Farms manager, Sion Williams, increasing the percentage of lambs reared through a change of breeds and improved nutrition, is what has enabled Bowhill Farming’s lowland 1400-ewe flock to regularly hit the top third of producers. Even last year, when producers lost so many lambs and often ewes to the Beast from the East, rearing percentages hit 173%.

Add to that increased net margins per ewe in both the lowland and the 5400 hill ewe flock year on year, and it comes as no surprise that Bowhill Farming and Sion are regularly short leeted in various national agricultural competitions, to include being a finalist in last year’s AgriScot Sheep Farm of the Year.

In contrast to most sheep enterprises, Bowhill which is part of the wider Buccleuch Borders Estate, relies mostly on composite breeds from Innovis and New Zealand, particularly in the lowland flock.

“Trial work in 2008 with five different breeds and crosses on net margin per ewe first opened my eyes to the concept of using composites,” said Sion, who took on the role of farm manager of this current 13,500-acre operation in 2005.

“We looked into Highlander and Primera sheep in 2006 when Marks and Spencer’s were providing premiums for producers providing such lambs, but it wasn’t until I saw the net margins of five cross breeds that convinced me to make the change,” he said.

“The Highlander, produced the highest net margins at £28 per ewe and the Texel cross Mule was bottom at £14.

“The Highlander ewes were phenomenal as they scanned out at 220% and reared 202% right through to finishing, whereas the Texel cross Mules reared 167% to finishing.”

“Carcase quality is important, but if you want to improve profit margins, it’s all about lamb numbers at the end of the day,” Sion added.

Ten years down line, and Sion has not only increased ewe numbers on this mixed upland unit, from 2000 to 6800, he has also completely changed the genetics, with the 1400 lowland ewes comprising maternal Innovis breeding.

As a result, there are 1100 Aberfield and Aberdale composite ewes which appear best suited to increased female productivity at Bowhill Farms, with the Primera, imported through frozen embryos, New Zealand hybrid made up of several fast growing breeds off grass, and Abermax, another Innovis breed, used as a terminal sire.

There are also 350 Aberfield ewes (Texel cross Bluefaced Leicesters) and 350 Aberdale ewes, which are used in the Ramcompare project. These have been tupped to high index Texel, Hampshire Down, South Down, Abermax (Charollais x Texel), Suffolk and Charollais rams this year, to discover which produce the highest margins.

As soon as the ewes have been scanned – early January – the priority is to maximise the number of lambs born alive and reared either through to finishing, or as female replacements. Hence all scanned, twin, triplet, quad-bearing ewes are brought inside to straw-bedded polytunnels and fed a TMR. Single bearing ewes are however, kept outside on grass, to be fed blocks and silage only, depending on the weather.

It may seem a costly option bringing ewes under cover early January when they don’t start lambing until mid-March, but it is a policy which is producing results. It is also cheaper than feeding ewes outside with a snacker, according to Sion.

“It’s all about the ewe, nutrition and the constituents of the ration,” said Sion. “Feeding ewes a TMR instead of concentrates is working out at £15 per ewe cheaper because we are using more home grown feeds and we already had a feed wagon for the cattle, so it wasn’t costing us anything more to buy one.

“The ewes are also far more contented since we started bringing them inside to a TMR in January as they are never stressed pushing one another out of the way to get to the snacker or the ring feeder, so there are not the same levels of twin-lamb disease or prolapses we used to have.”

Initially, such ewes are provided 4kg of a high quality silage, which this year analysed 12.4% protein and with minerals to include selenium, cobalt, iodine and Vitamin E to increase lamb vigour, through the TMR. Early February, the nutritional value of the ration is increased to include 0.2kg oats and 0.05kg soya per head per day along with the reduced 3.4kg silage and minerals.

And, by the second week in February, feeding is stepped up further by 0.05kg of soya and 100ml molasses with silage reduced to 3.3kg per head per day at the mid February, for all twin, triplet and quad-bearing ewes.

Single rearing lambs are housed in the same polytunnel as the triplets and come inside just at the point of lambing to the exact same feed ration as the remainder of the ewes.

“We have found there is no difference feeding all the ewes the same ration, when the aim is to have each one rearing twins when they go out to grass,” said Sion, adding that he has seen no advantage in feeding extra to triplet-bearing ewes on the run up to lambing either.

At lambing, all lambs’ navals are dipped in iodine mixed with surgical spirits, and each one is given a scour halt drench to prevent watery mouth. Ewes and their lambs are also put into individual pens, with the vast majority put outside with their mothers within hours of being born. Each pen is sprayed with disinfectant between ewes.

Triplet, quad and single-bearing ewes are lambed in the same polytunnel to enable triplets and quads to be married up with single born lambs. Extra care is also taken with triplets and quads to ensure they have received additional colostrum to boost their immune system with lambs that are in the ‘pet pen’ for any length of time given an antibiotic.

“All the composite breeds make really good mothers when twinning on lambs and they all have more than enough colostrum when there is soya in the diet,” said Sion. “I’m sure they produce more colostrum with soya compared to feeding an 18% protein nut.”

Such has been the success of the soya, that the business is looking to feed a soya-based nut, at a cost of more than £300 per tonne for when the ewes are put outside this year, should grass be limiting.

“Davidsons has developed a 32% crude protein, soya-based nut for us which is triple mineralised and rich in soya, sugar beet pulp and rapemeal. It is expensive but we will only need to use a third of what would normally be required with a typical ewe roll, to get the same result, so it is cheaper in the long run,” said Sion.

Further input costs have been reduced by omitting routine worm drenches. Instead, only the fields with lambs with high faecal egg burdens are dozed. At marking time, lambs are scratched for orf and vaccinated with Ovivac P with the second vaccine given just before shearing.

Meanwhile, the hill flock which run on the 10,240acres of heather and rough grazing, comprise mostly Blackface ewes of which two thirds are kept pure to breed replacements, while the remaining third are tupped with Aberdale or Aberfield rams to breed replacement females for further down the hill which in turn are crossed with a Primera or Abermax.

Most years, the hill flocks, which are all lambed outdoors from the beginning of April, onwards, are provided with blocks through the winter and hay depending on condition and the weather, to produce scanned lambing percentages of 130-140%, with numbers sold hitting 110%.

The a flock of South Country Cheviots introduced recently, however, scans out at around 120% and last year struggled to rear 90%.

Having built up a good relationship with Dunbia over the years, all lambs are sold off grass deadweight for Sainsbury’s supermarkets, with the vast majority hitting spec.

Such is the growth potential of the Primera off grass that lambs are taken to 38-40kg with the first heading south from the end of June onwards. Weaned lambs are often put onto a mixture of red and white clover swards to boost growth rates with the smaller lambs at the end of the year then going on to kale. “Red clover is fantastic for finishing lambs,” said Sion.

The smallest hill lambs are finished off kale in February/March.

While the sheep enterprise has come a long way in terms of productivity and efficiency in recent years, it is not the most profitable at Bowhill Farms.

In fact, it doesn’t come close to the profit margins achieved from the anaerobic digester on site – fuelled by cattle and poultry manure. Interestingly, the 32,000 free-range hen unit is the next most profitable, followed by the sheep. The new deer set up introduced this year is likely to produce similar margins to those of the poultry operation.

What is proving most challenging at present is the cattle unit – split between 150 hi-health pure-bred Aberdeen Angus cows bred pure and 50 pure Shorthorn females and 200 Angus cross Shorthorns, crossed to Angus / Charolais. All are calved inside during a eight-week period from the beginning of April onwards.

Outwith replacement females, and a further 70 smaller calves, all are sold store as yearlings off the farm in a private auction.

“We are often in the top third of Quality Meat Scotland’s costings but we can struggle to get the output and that is all down to fertility and the weather.

“Our cows scanned at 92% this year, but last year we struggled at calving time with the weather and our silage caused problems,” Sion said.

However, as an agri epicentre farm and part of the LEAF Demonstration Farms network, he is hopeful the new high-tech boluses which have been put into his breeding females will help. At present, half of the cows have been bolused which in turn shows when cows are in heat, and point of calving down to 12 hours.

“The boluses have reduced the number of bad calvings and they also highlight when a cow is unwell, which has to be a good thing,” said Sion.

To bolster productivity further, Sion plans to wean the calves at 160 days this year instead of 220days, thereby enabling better utilisation of grass, by weaning the cows onto hill ground, while the calves have access to creep field and good quality grass.

It’s a policy that should help improve daily liveweight gains in the calves and help fertility in cows, but as we all know, Mother Nature herself also has to be on our side, especially at this time of year with calvings and lambings just around the corner.

As it is, scanning percentages of the lowland flock are already down slightly on the year at Bowhill Farms at 197% compared to nearer 205%, so there’s already a lot of making up to do. But, Bowhill Farms will have a lot less making up to do than most …