Managing a sustainable, subsidy-free farm that is not only profitable but also protects the environment is the goal of most farmers, and while many will never be able to achieve such targets due to climate and topography, Ayrshire-based John Johnston is keen to have a good stab at it.

John (37) who took on a mid-term tenancy of the 200-acre grassland unit at Blairmulloch, Sorn, in May 2019, farms in partnership with his father, also Johnny. He also owns 80 acres, has a further 120 acres of neighbouring annual grass lets and in a separate business, contract farms the 1200-acre hill unit at Blacksidend which is home to 400 Blackface ewes.

With his father and uncle Archie having split the original family business in September 2017, John has trialled various methods of marketing livestock, which in the main is based on the purchase of 50-60 Limousin heifer and bull calves privately from the dairy herd in the summer to autumn months, with the best females bound for the partnership's beef cow herd which already stands at 80 head.

These calves are purchased in the spring from regular sources at 10-12 weeks of age at £300-£400, grazed for the summer and then either sold as forward stores either through United Auctions, Stirling, or Lawrie and Symington at Lanark, or retained to boost herd numbers.

Wintered on silage and a Harbro blend, the last lot of Limousin crosses were sold in March at 18-months of age weighing in at 550kg and selling for £1200.00.

The heifers certainly pay their as breeding females, being calved at two years of age to a Charolais, with the top draw from the resultant progeny sold as suckled calves at eight months of age. In April, these bullocks cashed in at £1100 at 400kg plus with their female rivals making £950 at similar weights, through UA.

The smaller calves are left on their mothers summered at grass and sold as forward stores.

"The Limousin cross Holstein makes for an ideal suckler cow as she has the milk to grow a calf to 400kg at eight months of age. If anything, she can be too milky," said John.

He has also found that beef cows bred from the dairy herd, don't tend to put on too much weight at grass and instead tend to maintain the same body condition all year, thereby reducing the risk of calving problems, even during the summer at grass.

"We calve during in summer outside because that's when we have most time and we never get any real problems, even calving heifers to a Charolais.

"We do pelvic score all heifers that go to the bull and any that are below the threshold are sold as forward stores, but we also make a point of buying Charolais bulls with easy calving figures privately, and bulls with short gestation lengths. Charolais cross calves are the ones that pay best in the market place," John said adding that there is still an older Limousin bull on the farm carried over from when the business was split. The two young Charolais bulls are Lawersbridge Pirate and Parkhall Parky and John also AI's when needed.

Located on heavy soils on Sorn Estates, which rise to 500ft above sea-level, it is however a short grazing season on this east Ayrshire farm, when excessive rainfall and cattle often lead to difficult ground conditions anytime from September onwards. Most years, cattle are inside for roughly 210 days.

They are nevertheless extremely fortunate in have a former dairy cubicle shed on the farm with scrapers, thereby reducing the need to buy in expensive straw bedding.

Housed early October, cows are fed good quality pit silage, and a 2kg Harbro blend and minerals to improve fertility when they're running with the bull. Their calves have access to a creep feed whilst still on their mothers at this time too.

While John is relatively content with the cattle margins achieved from his own basic bench marking – with the exception of the bottom end which he hopes to improve – his sheep have had a few issues this year.

Following last year's record breaking lamb crop which saw the cross ewes produce a weaning percentage of 170%; hoggs at 105% and the Blackies at 141%, providing some 1100 lambs in total, this year has been more problematic primarily as a result of toxoplasmosis.

The farm is home to 350 Blackfaces which are crossed to a crossing-type Bluefaced Leicester to breed Scotch Mule ewe lambs to sell at home privately to regular buyers, which this year averaged £132 per head, with others retained as replacements and lambed inside or outside depending on space, weather and grass as hoggs to a Blue texel and a Texel. John has also just bought two Primera tups to trial this year.

Mule ewes are mostly tupped with a Texel ram or a Suffolk cross Texel, and lambed inside with all the progeny sold off grass deadweight through Scotbeef. To date, the farm has sold 560lambs this year with 75% in the Marks and Spencers spec' at 19.3kg and that includes 150 Scotch Mule lambs.

Alongside his Blackies which are lambed outside, John is looking to tup 160 of his Mule ewes to an Aberfield this year and lamb them outside when they are believed to produce a hardier type of lamb.

In contrast to most sheep farmers who winter their sheep at home with additional feeding on the run up to lambing, John takes grass fields to reduce the need to buy concentrate feeding whilst also saving his own grass fields for lambing.

He also contract farms the 1200-acre rough hill ground at Blacksidend, which has just 60 acres of in-bye ground therefore restricting lambing percentages and the amount of stock that can be sold off farm.

The contract, which started in September 2018, revolves around John being paid an arranged fee to attend to the sheep, while the owner purchases all vet and med, any feeding and stock rams required. In doing so, he has already seen huge improvements in the quality and numbers of stock born.

Last year, his 400 Blackface ewes produced 499 lambs, of which 120 were retained for breeding, with the remaining ewe lambs averaging £56 and wedders at £55.

A difficult year with a lot of snow in January this year, saw a reduced lambing percentage and 90 fewer lambs born. However, with the increase in the value of all stock, the first lot of store lambs sold off their mothers this year cashed in at £72 at 36kg with a second batch of 35kg lambs averaging £70.

It is the quality of the breeding stock now being produced off the hill which has impressed John most though, so much so that he is hoping to be able to buy stock ewe lambs for Blairmulloch.

"The stock is definitely improving at Blacksidend. I've now got home-bred gimmers there lambing outside that have never been touched and I'll be able to do the same with their daughters, which I hope to be able to buy for my own use at Blairmulloch instead of buying in a pen of draft ewes every year.

"Ideally, I am aiming to have better females and to start keeping more home-bred tup lambs for using."

With John's wife Catherine, who works four days a week as a site environmental manager at GlaxoSmithKline at Irvine and attends to their children, Kerr (6) and April (5), the business has taken on Caitlin Strang, who initially helped out as a student in a placement during the winter of 2019/2020, before then being taken on part-time and is now there most days.

"She has her own dog and has very quickly become a valuable member of the team," said John

It is all very much a learning process though as John is keen to record and use performance recorded rams and bulls, which are not always easy to source.

He is also passionate about relying more on grass and finishing as much as possible off the green stuff, which as a result has seen him analyse most of the field soils at Blairmulloch in a bid to improve nutrient levels and yields.

With so much rough ground on the hill at Blacksidend, the partnership is looking to buy few hill cows to help to improve hill grazing whilst adding to the bottom line.

Open to all suggestions, John is eager to bolster productivity and efficiency on both farms and with all his sheep and cattle EID recorded, he already has the weigh crates to help improve levels of efficiency and prove the increased weights of individual sheep and cattle off various sires.

It's now up to Harbro, the vets and the bench-marking team to come up with the best solutions on how best to improve levels of productivity and efficiency, for John and the other Harbro competition winner, William Law, based in Huntly.

Watch out for our monthly Future Farmer column, highlighting just how their farm and livestock is performing with advice from the experts.

FARM facts:

Farm: Blairmulloch – 200-acre mid-term tenancy; 80owned acres nearby and a further 120 acres of seasonal grazing. Contract farms 1200acres at Blacksidend.

Livestock: 50-60 Limousin cross calves bought privately from a regular source to sell as forward stores or keep as replacement females; 80 summer-calving Limousin cross cows; 350 Blackface ewes put to the Bluefaced Leicester to breed replacements and ewe lambs to sell; 290 Scotch Mule ewes tupped with a Texel or Suffolk cross with all progeny finished off grass; 180 Mule ewe hoggs lambed and 15 pure Blackface ewes. Blacksidend – 400 Blackface ewes.

Labour: John and his father John, and former student, Caitlin Strang, who helps out most days.

ONTHE spot

Best investment? More stock to ensure the growth of the business.

Best advice? Be on your toes mentally and physically so you are ready to react when the unexpected happens.

Where do you want to be in 2030? Farming much the same acres but increasing kg/acre produced by better genetics, technology and soil health.

What has made the biggest difference to your business? Benchmarking and recording information to push me to want to improve on everything.

If money was no object what would how would you invest money? I would buy a large ring fenced farm.