INVESTIGATING the measurement of feed efficiency in sheep was the main focus of a recent open day held at the SRUC Kirkton and Auchtertyre research farms, near Crianlarich.

The hill farm unit, that was established 50 years ago, works with many different technologies, looking at how they can benefit the wider agricultural industry, battling some of the challenges that farmers and crofters face in this current climate.

One aspect being looked at is the potential benefits of recording feed intake in sheep flocks in a bid to help reduce greenhouse gases, use less resources to produce meat and, in turn, to help make farms more profitable.

A sheep feed intake recording system has been fitted at Kirkton and is housed in one of the farms' existing sheds, with 16 forage bins and water drinkers fitted along existing feed barriers.

The lambs in the study are being fed concentrate finishing pellets and grass nuts and EID readers catch them as they go in and out of troughs, saving the data relating to what each individual animal consumes.

A control trailer sits at the end of the shed, where data from the feeders and troughs can be seen and downloaded. This can be done remotely if the system is on wifi. The entire set up is portable and can be moved between farms.

Dr Mark Young, from the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock, explained: "Research is where you turn cash into knowledge and innovation is where you turn knowledge into cash, so looking into everyday things like sheep feeding is a massively important area of investigation for the farming world.

"The hope is that this technology will help us look at feeding animals more efficiently. Up until this point, a lot of research on this topic has been done on the feeding of cattle, so starting to look more at sheep feeding is a really exciting, interesting aspect of the process."

He continued: "One aspect that we are especially interested in is how feed intake in sheep could effect their body composition."

The system at Kirkton can be programmed so that only certain animals are allowed in certain feeders, with 120 lambs subjects of the current study. The two water feeders enclose the sheep and also heat the water to save issues in the winter. Three webcams in the shed also monitor animal behaviour.

Dr Nicola Lambe, who specialises in sheep breeding research within SRUC is currently involved in projects concerned with increasing the economic viability and product quality of sheep and beef production systems, whilst minimising the negative environmental impacts of such systems. Discussing the work at Kirkton, she said: "We got funding for the feed intake recording equipment in 2016 and we looked at many different options when it came to systems that measured sheep feed intake.

"We eventually settled on a unit similar to one we had seen in Norway. We wanted something portable and the system we have can be moved from one site to another. The main thing it does well is give us information and data with regards to the finishing of lambs, which is something that all sheep farmers look at, so it is hugely applicable and relevant across the industry.

"It also gives us a level of bio-control that we need to ensure that our study works well in the type of sheep breeding system we have at Kirkton."

Dr Lambe continued: "The benefits of measuring sheep feed intake are so important. Overall, sheep produce meat from marginal land and in most cases require supplementary feed. Approximately 60% of the variable costs involved in rearing sheep go towards feed and forage. Increased feed efficiency could reduce costs and increase output, two very important elements.

"As things stand, we have a lot of information on sheep outputs, but not a lot on inputs – especially when it comes to feed, and especially in grass-based systems. We want to increase our knowledge of sheep in this area, as we have already done with cattle and pigs.

"The potential exists to record feed efficiency in sheep and the research required is very relevant in the United Kingdom and the sheep breeds and systems we employ, we just need industry collaboration on the subject."