A BLUEPRINT for a Lothians mixed unit featuring a closed Aberfield flock lambing outdoors, with rotational grazing and reduced labour of one person per 1500 ewes has been developed by Peter Eccles.

“My challenge is to increase output and ultimately farm without reliance on payments by developing a robust system that can be either expanded or replicated if more land becomes available,” explains Peter who manages Saughland Farm, a 320ha mixed unit based near Pathhead.

“We are farming a good grass growing unit and we agreed it was a case of scaling up and turning grass – the cheapest form of feed, in to kilos of liveweight per hectare. The strategy is about increasing farm output without increasing fixed costs and finding ways to cut back on variable costs; we cannot be dependent on future market prices.”

Since being appointed to the position three years ago, Peter has stepped up flock size from 950 ewes to 2250 ewes whilst output has increased from 515kg liveweight per ha in 2015 to 730kg liveweight per ha forecast for this year.

Over the same period, the suckler herd has been restructured with 75 summer and autumn calving cows replaced with 70 cows scheduled to calve in March and April 2018. To accommodate the additional livestock the arable area has reduced from 100ha to 65ha.

“Lambing later outdoors enabled us initially to shave costs by a significant £13 per ewe, our biggest savings being concentrate feed and labour at lambing,” he says.

“The system has evolved rapidly following successful trials lambing outdoors in 2015 and 2016. This year we lambed the entire 1750 flock of ewes and ewe lambs outdoors commencing April 17 for 34 days, with 85% lambing within the first cycle."

As one of Scotland's five QMS Focus Farms, Saughland is taking part in the Live Lambs project which is designed to pinpoint exactly where lamb losses are occurring so to further increase productivity.

"This season ewes scanned at 170% and ewe lambs 99%, we lost 15.9% of lambs from scanning to marking. In a good spring like this year, I've heard of flocks achieving less than 10% lamb mortality where genetics have been selected heavily for mothering ability and lamb survivability. Obviously, nutrition and flock health are integral parts of the puzzle too."

Saughland is running a two-flock system. “Our objective is to build up an A flock of Aberfields, a damline developed with hard selection criteria, accompanying EBVs, reared off a grass-based system and being noted for ease of lambing which is proving to be the case. We also bought in to Aberfield’s science led background. We started off by purchasing a crop of Aberfield Romney ewe lambs and we are in the process of grading them up.”

Ewes which fail to lamb unassisted or have mothering issues are moved to the commercial B flock and crossed to the Primera or Abermax terminal sires at a ratio of 1:80 ewes.

The entire crop of lambs in 2016 averaged 19.46kg deadweight off grazed grass with tail enders sold finished on November 23. With a larger flock and later lambing this season, Peter has introduced 11ha of swedes and forage rape for lamb finishing into the new year.

One key element to the unit’s strategy is rotational grassland management. Saughland offers a mix of grazing, from 20-year-old plus permanent pasture to new leys with 30% clover content. “We introduce mobs of 200 ewes with twins to 3ha to 4ha blocks ideally offering 2500kg DM/ha where they graze for three to four days before moving on to the next paddock. Residuals of 1500kg DM/ha are met either by grazing singles behind twins or by mowing.

“We’ve yet to perfect the system – it’s still in its trial stages and there are many tough challenges ahead, however rotational grazing is resulting in more grass than we’ve ever had before and we are now in a position to continue building flock numbers. We recently had the opportunity to purchase a 500-ewe high health status flock which catapulted us ahead of schedule and should subsequently enable us to produce more replacements with the genetics we require."