COLLECTING data and then using it to advantage is helping drive performance and long-term sustainability for the recently crowned Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year at the recent AgriScot awards ceremony.

Livestock manager, Owen Gray and his team at Saughland Farm, in The Lothians, carefully record ewe and lamb performance, allowing them to identify the best stock and select accordingly. Their ultimate aim is to reduce shepherding reliance, maintain scanning, maximise growth rates and reduce days to slaughter.

“Recording at lambing flagged up that the previous breed was having a high birth-weights and lacked mothering ability, causing lambs to get stuck and ewes to leave lambs after birth. This made us move to the Romney type,” Mr Gray explained. Consequently, all ewes have now been crossed using a New Zealand Romney.

Lambing assistance, mothering instinct, eight-week weight and monthly weight gain thereafter are also recorded, with the best 600 ewe lambs retained to put to the tup. Only in-lamb ewe lambs are retained for the ‘A flock’ to produce replacements, whilst empty individuals are finished. This helps to breed in fertility to the flock, said Mr Gray.

The ‘B flock’ includes ‘demoted’ ewes from the ‘A flock’, such as those that have singles more than twice in a lifetime, or any other production impacting problems. These are all put to a terminal sire.

Mr Gray believed that recording was an essential tool for the industry, with both himself and farm manager, Ben McClymont, passionate about knowledge transfer to the wider industry. “One of our main aims is to show the wider agricultural community the benefits of Signet Recording, using Signet recorded rams and, at the very least, the benefits of removing the poor performers from the flock,” Mr Gray added.

With the view of reducing disease risk from buying in terminal tups and producing a terminal sire to suit their system, the team had recently started a high EBV Suffolk flock. Mr Gray explained: “Our main aim with the Suffolks is to run them commercially, being quite hard on them and breeding something that doesn’t compromise growth, or carcase quality, and with a need for shepherding intervention to be minimal. We will monitor that through CT scanning, Signet recording, and performance-based decisions.”

Selecting their home-bred tups fits with a drive to achieve a faster slaughter period, which will ultimately help lower the farm's carbon footprint. Mr McClymont added: “As a management team, it’s something we’ll be making more of. We’re currently working through our own carbon audit to set our own goals.”

Being as self-reliant as possible and creating a forage-focused system is part of those environmental goals. Ewes are managed on grass at tupping, before moving onto swedes and fodder-beet over-winter.

This year, the plan is to stop growing fodder beet after finding that frost damage killed the leaf, reduced the crop’s protein content and that was having a negative impact on ewe nutrition pre-lambing. Only triplet-bearing ewes received concentrate pre-lambing, whilst most lambs are finished off grass.

Last year, Mr Gray decided to reassess the grassland management strategy after routine monitoring highlighted that lamb growth rates were being compromised on an intensive rotational grazing system. Ewes and lambs are now set-stocked until lambs are eight weeks old, before moving on to rotational grazing.

To maintain pasture quality, cattle are strip-grazed in the same field where ewes are set-stocked. This strip is moved and back fenced regularly to maintain grass quality. Lambs and calves are allowed to graze under the wire, which helps growth rates. In fact, both ewe and lamb performance has benefited (see box).

Mr Gray added: “On average, 2021 weaning weights were sky high compared to 2020. They were up 4kg compared to the rotational grazing regime and we’ve manage to finish more lambs, and increased sale value."

The team is also keen to work collaboratively with arable producers with the view to improving soil quality and creating additional forage supply. A neighbouring farm rents arable land at Saughland, and grows a range of cover crops to prevent soil erosion.

Cattle and sheep are grazed on these crops to help build soil fertility, whilst also reducing machinery and housing costs.

BOX 1:

Farm facts:

• Where: Saughland Farm, the Lothians.

• Land: 240ha grassland (including forage crops), 50ha arable, 40ha woodland and hedgerows.

• Sheep stock: 1500 ewes and 400 ewe lambs.

• Breeds: New Zealand Romney and Aberfield composite ewes split into A and B flocks. A flock produced breeding lambs, B flock goes to a terminal sire. Lambs sold as stores or 19kg deadweight, averaging R3L

• Pure-breds: New high EBV Suffolk flock to produce sires

• Management: Focus on flock health, working with vets and research institutes. Only use wormers and antibiotics when necessary.

• Cattle: 100 Hereford cross Aberdeen Angus suckler cows

• Diversification: Business centre, farm shop, residential cottages, holiday cottages and storage units.

BOX 2:

Performance highlights:

• Plus 4kg increase in weaning weights since adopting a less intensive sheep rotational grazing system with cattle.

• A 181% ewe scanning percentage – up from 163% in 2020 following the change in grazing management.

• Around 80% of lambs are finished off grass, with the rest sold as stores or finished on creep.