Highland Sheep has been gaining momentum since it’s inception in 2013 and this year’s event looks set to be the biggest and best yet, being staged on one of Scotland’s best known commercial farming units.

The National Sheep Association’s Highland Sheep takes place every two years with the 2019 business get together at Sibmister Farm, Caithness ¬– staged curtesy of the Sutherland family – Kenneth and Elspeth, and sons Stephen and his fiancée Alix Brown and young Kenneth and his wife Fiona - being the most northerly location ever for an on-farm event.

“Sibmister is the perfect venue for NSA Highland Sheep 2019,” said event chairman, Willie Budge.

“The sheep industry will be here in force sharing the latest information and technology available through the many educational, advisory and commercial companies attending, along with a variety of general agricultural trade stands and breed exhibits.

“Not to be missed is the farm tour which will give visitors a flavour of the farming systems in Caithness and the top quality livestock produced in the county,” added Mr Budge.

It’s producing superior quality, hi health home-bred breeding and primestock that is key to this well-known 1700-acre all grass unit.

No strangers to the show ring, entries from the 1600 commercial mixed ewe flock regularly pick up some of the lead awards at the Aberdeen Christmas Classic, Royal Northern Spring Show, Black Isle, Turriff, the Royal Highland and the Sutherlands local Caithness Show.

Home-bred Texel and Suffolk shearling rams also attract many of the top prices at the local Quoybrae tup sale, which in the past have seen numerous four-figure prices and a top of £1200.

Not to be outdone, the family’s 400 suckler cow herd routinely produces show winners and sale leaders at the local store cattle sales, again at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Quoybrae centre.

It is nevertheless the sheep flock that leaves the highest nett margins.

“We always reckon there is nothing better than sheep to the acre,” said Stephen.

“Last year, 70% of the lamb crop killing out with E and U+ grades and the remainder were Rs, with just four producing O carcase classifications,” he added pointing out that most are sold purely off grass.

Such has been the ease of management and improved productivity of the sheep enterprise, that a change in farm policy – away from cropping to more livestock – has allowed the Sutherlands to increase ewe numbers from 1100 to 1600 over the past 10 years.

In doing so, they now run one of the most diverse range of breeds and crosses, with the top end of all females retained for breeding.

Outwith the odd stock ram, the only bought in animals in recent years have been 300 North Country Cheviots which were re-introduced to breed home-bred Cheviot Mules.

Hence, while a proportion of the Cheviots are bred pure to breed replacements, most are tupped with a Bluefaced Leicester to breed the Cheviot Mule, which in turn is crossed to a Texel. The resultant Texel cross Cheviot Mule – the main breeding female on the farm – is then either tupped with a Texel or a Suffolk.

In a bid to further increase productivity, the Sutherlands are also tupping their ewe hoggs, and following several years with various breeds and crosses, have discovered the Jacob is the most successful.

“We wanted something that was fast growing and quick on their feet and the Jacob proved to be the best. The lambs were the hardiest and easiest lambed out of ewe hoggs and they were quick to get to their feet and sook,” said Stephen adding that all Jacob cross ewe lambs are retained to be put back either to a Charollais cross Beltex or a Texel cross ram.

“The aim is to get two-thirds of the ewe hoggs in lamb, so tups are left out for 17 days only. The Jacob cross lambs were some our dearest lambs sold last year as 120 averaged £100 with a top price of £115.”

However, while there are a range of different breeds and cross-bred ewes, it’s Texel crosses which the boys have found to be the most valuable at the end of the day despite having more udder problems.

“Suffolk cross ewes produce lambs that are slightly earlier finishing, but she is worth £20 per head less compared to a Texel cross ewe at the end of her life,” Stephen said.

Adding to the productivity of the sheep flock - and the men - are the 60 pure Suffolks and 50 pedigree Texels, which not only produce home-bred tups to use as lambs over the commercial flock but also shearling rams to sell the following year at the local Quoybrae Market where the firm regularly sells the top priced lots. There are also six pure Jacob ewes to breed home-bred tups to use.

While the pure-bred Suffolks and Texels lamb in February, the bulk of the lambing kicks off mid March with the hoggs starting a month later. With calving taking place at the same time, the family who do most of the work alongside full time employee, Angus Mowat, do nevertheless have to take on two extra staff. Young Alastair McCarthy has also joined the team having just left school.

Overall scanning percentages work out at 180% with the number sold off farm working out at 150-160%.

In contrast to most units which scan their ewes and then put them back outside until a few days prior to lambing, the boys house all ewes immediately after scanning in purpose built slatted sheep sheds, which have proved hugely beneficial. This compares to previous years when the ewes were wintered in on-farm quarries.

“Housing earlier works really well as the ewes are in better condition on less feed. This is the second year we’ve put them on slats and they’re certainly far easier managed this way. They settle better inside too,” said Kenneth who added that top quality silage and minerals are initially provided before ewe rolls are introduced six weeks prior to lambing. Silage is nevertheless analysed on a regular basis to ensure optimum nutrition.

“Ewes seem to keep their feet better on slats and there are not the same prolapses either,” he added.

Split into three groups – those bearing singles, twins and triplets – the first group is provided silage only, with twin mothers receiving 0.75kg of a Harbro Premium ewe roll per head per day and triplet ewes 1kg, six weeks before lambing.

Just days before they are due, they are then moved to straw bedded courts. New born lambs are given a scour halt drench and have their navels dipped in iodine before being put into individual pens with their mothers until they are up on their feet and ‘sooked’. Most go out to grass the following day. depending on the weather after which each pen is thoroughly mucked out and disinfected for the next lot.

All lambs are sold fat deadweight through Woodheads at Turriff, with the first usually away by the end of May, purely off grass. This year’s early spring and increased grass growth has seen lambs finish earlier than ever, with the first batch away mid May selling for £105 and all grading Es and Us.

Ewes have been lambed indoors for years now to save grass for the ewes post lambing but also to protect newly born lambs from the high numbers of ravens in the area.

It’s a similar situation for the cows, with all calved in straw-bedded courts from the beginning of March onwards - again to save their offspring from the increasing number of ravens.

In previous years, the family would grow up to 300acres of cereals for the cattle, but with the weather unreliable at harvest and variable yields, the decision was made about a decade ago to forget cropping and concentrate more on the cattle and sheep. As a result, sheep numbers were increased to 1600 ewes, while cow numbers have doubled to 400 Aberdeen-Angus, Simmental and Longhorn cross cows.

“We’ve been using the Longhorn on the heifers for about eight years as they are so easy calved and quiet. They also make really good, quiet, easy fleshing females to breed from,” said Stephen, who pointed out that the family’s ideal choice of suckler cow is a Longhorn cross Simmental which calves easily to a Charolais.

Longhorn cross steers sell just as well as their Simmental cross rivals too with the calves selling to regular buyers at the store sales at Quoybrae.

While the majority of heifers calve at three years of age to the Longhorn or Aberdeen-Angus, they are continuing to experiment, with their latest purchase being a red Aberdeen Angus bull from near neighbours, D and M Tait, Inkstack, to put onto their Longhorn cross heifers.

Older cows are bulled to a Simmental, with most crossed to Charolais bulls which produce progeny selling at 10-11months of age and up to 400kg plus, to average close to £1000 per head through the local mart.

All cows receive Harbro Super Suckler minerals through the winter and buckets once out at grass to maximise fertility, which has helped to bolster cow performance.

Stephen added: “We have seen an improvement in performance over the past few years with the latest scanning showing only seven cows and three heifers not in calf. We have certainly seen a lift in cow fertility as this year’s scanning figures are the best yet. Our calves appear to have more vigour too.”

All calves and store cattle are feed Beefstock nuts with Rumitech – a natural additive which makes more of the energy in the feed available to the cow, reducing methane emissions and improving rumen function. Due to their progressive approach, the Sutherland family were one of the first to use the product when it was introduced by Harbro following a trial with compound feed including the additive.

“The increased efficiency of the rumen function has resulted in a noticeable reduction in the amount of silage consumed which is a known benefit of Rumitech and this prompted the family to adopt the product into the ration on a permanent basis,” said Stephen.

Thankfully, calving and lambing is all but done at Sibmister, with all hands on deck now in preparation for Highland Sheep on Wednesday June 12.

It might be one of the most northerly located farms in Scotland, but it is certainly well worth a visit and if not on the 12th, the Sutherlands have a range of new exclusive and bespoke holiday pods which just opened in March. Braeside Retreats, which features The Stable, The Byre, The Coop, The Hive, The Burrow and The Paddock, provides luxury accommodation and a hot tub to go with it in some of the most scenic countryside in Caithness….

And, you can choose your own pod !!!