THE TERM ‘easycare’ can be misleading, certainly in relation to sheep – but, as most in the farming world know, there is nothing easy about rearing livestock.

However, Charley and Andrea Walker, of Barnside Farm, at Abbey Saint Bathans, near Duns, are doing their best to get the optimum results, using what they consider to be the most straight-forward methods.

Last year's AgriScot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year, the couple, along with their kids, Tom (16) and Jessica (13), run a 252 ha beef and sheep farm on the Lammermuir Hills, operating a low input, grass-fed, organic system.

Originally from the Midlands, Charley and Andrea are passionate about the way they have chosen to do things, and they seem to be doing so with great success.

The couple used to farm New Zealand Romney’s, and had done so since they came to Barnside in 2001, but after extensive research, and after deciding that they would be more suited to they way they hoped to work, they made the full change to Easycares, and now farm 800 ewes and 220-head of hoggs.

Charley explained: “We’d been to Wales and seen the Easycares, and I did a Nuffield Scholarship in 2007 looking into easier care cattle and sheep then. We had one Easycare ram for a year, just to test the waters, but it got to the stage we just committed, and went for it.

“We prefer them for a number of reasons. Their self-shedding nature eliminates wool related tasks and reduces the stress on both us and them! This also means reduced labour, and vet bills, which is never a bad thing.

“I must admit that my original fear was that they would look terrible, but they don’t” Charley admitted.

“But the way I look at it is, if you breed an animal that makes you money and doesn’t cause you too much hassle, you can learn to like the look of it!”

The also run 90 spring-calving Welsh Black cows, which they put to an Aberdeen-Angus bull.

The farm is split into eight clear grazing blocks, and three wintering areas, with each of the grazing blocks subdivided into 8 x 3 ha paddocks that are grazed in a set rotation, in a New Zealand style operation. The blocks are alternated annually between sheep and cattle stock.

The aim is that this should provide clean, worm free grazing, as no area should become over grazed or over poached. The three sheltered wintering paddocks accommodate stock during the period of the year that they are fed silage, and these areas are then reseeded where necessary, before being cut again for silage in the summer.

The Walkers got interested in rotational grazing after talking to Kiwi friend. They originally gave it a go in 2009, but became a bit disheartened by it when they discovered that the water system on the farm was a hurdle they were going to have to overcome.

However, after a breakthrough moment in 2013, when they were questioning a lot of what they were doing after a spate of bad weather had also taken its toll, another Kiwi friend helped them realise that a rotational, paddock grazing system was really the way forward for them, and they have never looked back. Barnside is now split into 65 fields, with the scope to splitting it to 99 if the need arose.

“The following winter saw a lot of developments on the farm,” Andrea explained. “We’re fully organic as well – and have been since August, 2004 – and we're fully committed to that, and the rotational grazing system. We would be lying if we said it hadn’t been a very steep learning curve, but we’ve taken on board our mistakes along the way, and hopefully learnt from them.

"There will no doubt still be bumps in the road to come, as there are with most things! We’re doing what works for us, and I think that’s important.

“We went organic for a lot of reasons, mostly financially in the beginning, but it has gradually become more for ethical reasons too. We always want to keep things sustainable, and it’s a stronger suit for the cattle maybe than the sheep – being able to rely on the premium you get for organic cattle is good.

“We did spend a lot of time getting our heads round it though, organic farming is very different from conventional farming, there’s no two ways about it,” she added.

The couple put their females to three types of tups – Easycare, Exlana and a New Zealand Texel. “We breed mostly with an Exlana tup now” Charley said. “They’re basically the south-east England version of Easycares and we feel like they bring us a bit of hybrid vigour.

“The hoggs go to a New Zealand Texel. These produce a lamb that is easily born and good for hoggs. The lambs also hit the deck and get away quickly. They’re great for our fully outdoor system.”

The Walkers do all their lambing outside, only bringing anything in if it needs a little TLC. Their cattle are also all out-wintered, so they generally don’t need to worry about housing a lot of stock for long periods of time, and the challenges that can bring.

The hoggs that go to the tup are all judged on a weight scale, to make sure they’re up to the task and they budget on two-thirds of them getting in-lamb, a success rate they admit they would like to improve on.

Charley said: “If you’re getting lambs to a reasonable tupping weight, then that’s an opportunity in the autumn. It gets the hoggs set to be good mothers. I do go on the theory that if they can hit puberty before their first winter, they do better in the long-run.”

Andrea admitted things were a bit ‘trial and error’ in the beginning, though: “We did lamb too many hoggs in the past that probably weren’t big enough, but that was us being too ambitious. Our management has now caught up with our expectations!”

They have a scanning rate of 165-177%, and go on to sell 137-150% of that. Their records also show that under 2% of births in lambing time are assisted – an impressive figure.

“Our lambing percentage is up on when we started,” Charley told The SF. “And, our lambs have shown an average growth rate of 250kg per day, which I don’t think is bad going. Generally, we’ve no lambs left on the ground by November. We sell them store if need be.”

Ewes are lambed at grass in April and early May, and from late May mobs of roughly 250 ewes and their lambs are rotationally grazed. Silage is fed for a month in February/March.

After lambing, which starts around April 20, twins are showing as having an 85-90% survival rate, while 90-95% of singles go on to thrive. Weaned lambs graze on red and white clover once they leave their mothers, and ewes are rotationally grazed for tupping then out-wintered on big bale silage.

Charley explained: “In March, into early April, ewes are rotationally grazed in a series of paddocks, moving every 1-3 days. Come April they are moved into groups of 20-30, ready for lambing.

“Once lambing is over, groups of approximately 250 ewes and their lambs are rotationally grazed in a series of seven-acre paddocks, shifting every three days.

“We prioritise groups as to who gets the ‘first shot’ at the best grass,” continued Charley. “Groups of in-lamb ewes or hoggs that might need a wee bit of a push will get the first grazing of a paddock, etc, before being moved on so others can reap the benefits of it. We also always make sure to save some grass so that we always have some there.”

The cattle calve at grass in April and May, and also graze rotationally, with calves coming off their mothers at six months. Young stock is sold at 16-18 months, store, after their second summer.

“They’re leaving here in September/October, at around 500kg,” said Charley. “We basically sell them to finish.”

Charley admitted that, for him at least, the cattle were at one time a secondary enterprise on the farm, but says now that they are a 50:50 priority split. He explained: “I think a key feature of our management is that we try to identify what should be our priority group, at particular times of year – whether that be cattle or sheep. It seems to be working OK for us just now, so I see no reason to change it anytime soon.”

The couple are modest when it comes to talking about why they may have won the AgriScot accolade last November. “We’ve been heavily involved in discussion groups and regularly host youth groups, student and farm visits,” Charley added. “And, we’ve known people who have won the award previously, but I think it was farm consultants that we know that nominated us.

“It was a great honour. We didn’t think we would win, but we are certainly very proud to have done so. I like to think that is shows that other people believe in what we are doing and how we do it, as much as we do.

“We’re passionate about what we do and we love showing people what we do, but we also love learning from other people. Sharing knowledge is a great way of learning, in my opinion.”

Although the Walkers have spent a lot of time and effort on developing their way of working – both Charley and Andrea work fulltime at home, and pride themselves on being able to do ‘almost anything’ between them – they are realistic about the role of politics in modern agriculture.

The family do receive a basic farm payment, but they believe they could make money without it. “If we didn’t receive the basic payment, we’d need to get bigger,” conceded Andrea. “We’re not over-reliant on it, I believe it’s dangerous to be in that situation, although it’s often unavoidable for some people.

"Generally, if farmers didn’t receive basic payments – and you don’t know what will happen in the future – it would be a whole different ballgame, things would be a lot more competitive.”

They’re also realistic about the potential consequences of living in a post-Brexit world. Charley admitted that he wasn’t a supporter of Brexit, but equally that, moving forward, they’ve considered what it could mean for their way of life.

“We have looked at lots of alternative enterprises, that we could turn to if it came to it, but right now, we’re doing what we enjoy and, hopefully, we’re doing it quite well. If we can keep positioning ourselves in the top third of sheep producers, then we’ll hopefully survive at least!

“We love what we do and we want to keep doing it – and hopefully keep getting better at it," he concluded.