Most livestock farmers perceive high inputs with increased outputs and improved margins, but low input can be just as productive and indeed profitable – if not more so – than intensive forms of agriculture, as last year’s winners of the AgriScot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year, Neil and Debbie McGowan, daughter Tally and son Angus, have discovered.

Add to that a smaller, functional animal tailored to suit the individual needs of their farm and reducing input costs, have proved a win, win situation for the Perthshire-based couple who farm with Neil’s parents, Finlay and Judy McGowan, and sister Clare, over three units based at Incheoch, Alyth.

Gone are the days of three individual lambings, lambing various breeds and crosses from mid-March onwards, with half lambing inside and half outside. Instead, the business now runs an increased ewe flock comprising 350 pedigree Lleyn ewes, 100 stud Texel ewes and 750 commercial Lleyns, most of which lamb outside from the end of April within a three-four-week period.The pure Texels lamb earlier, from the end of March onwards.

“We found lambing outdoors produces higher margins than lambing indoors, but then we are lambing later now when there is grass for the sheep and the worst of the weather is hopefully over,” said Neil, who has travelled throughout much of Canada and the US, Australia and New Zealand, looking at how to improve productivity with reduced inputs, as a Nuffield Scholar.

“We’re also working with a more productive type of Lleyn that suits outdoor lambing here and one which doesn’t require the amount of feeding other commercial types of sheep need lambing earlier.”

More impressive is the fact that the couple has altered their type of sheep – which originate from Debbie’s own flock of 40 Lleyn ewes and 20 hoggs brought to the farm when the couple got married in 2000 – purely by recording the maternal characteristics of the stud Lleyn and Texel ewe flocks and retaining only those from the top performing females. Any that struggle to rear two lambs, have poor maternal scores, prolapses, difficult lambings, mastitis, are regularly lame, etc are culled.

Similarly, only the best home-bred tup lambs with high fat levels – to help improve daily liveweight gains – and bred from the most maternal females are used as tup lambs before selling them the following year at the family's well-known ‘Working Genes sale’ which this year will celebrate it's 12th anniversary.

The only bought in stock purchases are a Texel and a Lleyn ram per year to introduce new lines.

Neil added: “Ten years ago, our stud Lleyn flock which breeds the commercial ewe flock, produced scanning percentages of 205%, whereas now that figure is down to 188%. Lamb survival has also improved from 81% to 84%.”

During that time, the number of triplets born has more or less been halved, with 12% scanning threes now, compared to 22% a decade ago. Twin and single numbers have increased slightly from 60-63% and from 15-22%, respectively, while yeld percentages have reduced from an already impressive 3% to 2% – all through recording.

Neil added: "Lambing is so much easier now than it used to be and that's us lambing twice as many sheep. We spend far more time recording the pure-bred Lleyns than actual lambing because there is not the same work involved lambing a motherly Lleyn ewe to a recorded Texel outside, compared to inside.

“The other good thing about lambing in May is that the weather is often so much kinder and there is grass so all the ewes' nutritional requirements are within a short walk from where they have chosen to lamb. Even if the weather does take a turn for the worse, it never lasts as long as it does in March or early April.”

Not surprisingly, feed costs have been significantly curtailed since lambing was put back. Instead of feeding concentrates from the end of January onwards for a flock lambing mid-March onwards, ewes are wintered on swedes and haylage after the tups are brought in mid January, which not only saves costs and the grass, but also improves soil fertility and nutrition.

Ewe rolls are only introduced to the leanest ewes and those bearing triplet lambs after scanning at the end of February although mineral blocks are provided close to lambing to all the ewes.

“The sheep seem to come through the winter so much better on swedes or turnips and the good thing is, it saves the grass fields for when the ewes are lambing. We’ve even wintered our ewe hoggs on swedes over the past couple of years and so far, their teeth seem to be holding up,” said Neil

Vet and med costs have also been significantly reduced too with ewes given a Heptavac P vaccine three to four weeks prior to lambing, while the lambs are scratched for orf and given an Heptavac jag at marking time. Worming is only done only when absolutely necessary in a bid to reduce costs and prevent any immunity to the various drenches building up.

As it is, regular egg counts are taken, and the couple is looking to use rams bred from ewes that have shown to be tolerant of stomach worms.

Having reduced input costs, the McGowans who also farm 160 Luings in their Dirnanean herd and 40 pedigree Simmentals, on their 1200-acre upland enterprise, with assistance from Jim Smith and Brian McIldowie, have also incorporated a lot of red clover into their silage swards in a bid to improve forage quality of the aftermath for weaned calves and lambs.

It appears to have worked too as despite lambing six weeks later than a decade ago, the first of the lambs are finished at the same time as they previously were – at the end of August off grass through Woodheads, Turriff.

With the Texel being the dominant sire, they produce some pretty good grades too which last year saw more than 50% of the total lamb crop yield E and U grades. The couple has also built up a niche market selling boxed lambs to order through St Andrews butcher, Stuart Minick, over the past 12 years.

While females are selected for their maternal characteristics and ease of management, rams are chosen based on their shape, feet and legs and their dam's maternal scores. Fat cover is also important for increased longevity and daily liveweight gain in the progeny.

Neil and Debbie – who works on the farm full time – have also found that using rams with a higher fat level has reduced mortality rates amongst lambs too. However, while figures are important, they stressed the importance of appearance.

"I do think that stockmanship and the eye of the breeder is of more importance than it is currently being recognised, because farmers do want a type of sheep that is pleasing to look at but also one that is productive. You just have to learn to be able to combine the two.

"Our most successful breeding tup, Incheoch Legend, was a former champion Lleyn at the Highland Show, and was discovered on paper as a tup lamb as his mother passed all the tests we look for in our breeding flock. His daughters make up a large proportion of our stud ewe flock now," Neil said.

Former winners of the Johnston Carmichael Trophy at NSA Highland Sheep in recognition of their dedication to improving their flock through the use of EBVs, Neil and Debbie remain convinced on the benefits of recording and even yet, almost 20 years down the line, are looking to further improve the breeding potential of their ewe flock.

"We have put a huge amount of work into recording but it has paid dividends and is continuing to pay. Recording is so important no matter how basic it is. We've even found that running a teaser tup with our ewe hoggs for about a month during the winter has increased scanned lambing percentages in the gimmer flock the following year from 150% to 200%.

"Everyone has got phenomenal ewes in their flock that year in year out, continually produce two good lambs without any effort. These are the sheep we need to appreciate more and breed more from, as they will drive the industry forward," said Neil.

Despite the challenges facing all farmers at present, having significantly reduced their costs of production, both Neil and Debbie remain 100% positive for the future of their industry.

"If it all goes pear-shaped we have a least developed a system that has already been shown to work well with significantly reduced inputs. Recording does work, and even if farmers don't have the time to develop their own system, they can still reap the benefits of it by buying a recorded ram," Neil concluded pointing out that their Working Genes sale is going from strength to strength with pedigree Simmental bulls now also sold at their sale of home-bred recorded Lleyn and Texel shearling rams.