It may look straightforward, but breeding and bringing out high priced pedigree livestock is never easy. Like any other business, there is a huge amount of risk, but for those with a keen eye, there are handsome dividends to be gained as the Stuarts from Milton of Birness, have discovered.

No strangers to the big money at the main pedigree Suffolk ram and female sales, the Stuarts – George and Agnes, son Melvin and his wife Nicola, along with son Murray and daughter Gemma – have enjoyed numerous years of success with progeny from their Birness flock, from Ellon.

 

Home to the Stuart family and flock of Suffolks Ref:RH080722061 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Home to the Stuart family and flock of Suffolks Ref:RH080722061 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

 

Three years ago, they produced a personal best, selling Birness Muzza for a whopping 43,000gns, with previous highs of 30,000gns twice, 26,000gns and 20,000gns, to name but a few.

More impressive is the fact that this 200-strong ewe flock not only produces several of the lead priced ram lambs at the Scottish National –now staged at Lanark, having moved from United Auctions’, Stirling – but also some of the highest flock averages at the English National at Shrewsbury, Kelso and Thainstone.

Last year, the family’s six lambs sold at Shrewsbury cashed in at £3200 with a top price of 6000gns, while the 12 ram lambs sold at Kelso peaked at £2600 to average £1420. At Thainstone, in September, the flock’s usual consignment of 30 lambs balanced out at £622.

 

Birness Muzza achieved a personal best for the Stuarts in 2019 when selling for 43,000gns. Pictured from left, Melvin, Gemma, Murray and George Stuart

Birness Muzza achieved a personal best for the Stuarts in 2019 when selling for 43,000gns. Pictured from left, Melvin, Gemma, Murray and George Stuart

 

Add in some equally successful female sales in recent years, which have seen Birness gimmers to 9000gns at Carlisle to average £3790 for 10, and ewe lambs and gimmers to 3800gns at Thainstone, and it comes as no surprise that Melvin is a huge fan of the Suffolk.

“The Suffolk is the breed of the future as there is no other breed that will produce lambs to reach 40kg in a shorter period of time. It’s the Charolais of the sheep world,” said Melvin.

He added that the big black native breed has become more popular in recent years as a terminal sire over continental cross females with the Suffolk providing that all important extra growth.

“There is a place for every breed, but the Suffolk is in a better position now, more than ever, when it can increase production rates in commercial flocks looking to get their lambs away finished off grass at a younger age. A Suffolk tup onto a Texel or Beltex cross ewe, or any white faced ewe produces some of the best finished lambs.”

As a result, he said demand for pedigree Suffolk females has soared and particularly from the younger generation.

“The Suffolk breed is going from strength to strength. There are a lot of new, younger members who have come into the breed and are keen to improve the Suffolk and produce good, correct commercial sheep,” Melvin added.

“We have seen a few of the top breeders disperse flocks in recent years but there has been no end of younger producers keen to buy into Suffolks and the breed is in a better place as a result.”

It’s only in past seven or eight years that the Stuarts have been able to tap into this valuable female market, when additional neighbouring ground was purchased. Up until this time, the 240-acre unit was home to 120 breeding females with much of the ground put down to cereals for home-grown feeds for the sheep and finishing cattle. The addition of 110 acres not only allowed the family to increase flock numbers to 200 breeding ewes, but also retain extra females for selling either as ewe lambs or gimmers.

 

Up to 80 Suffolk ram lambs are sold every year from the flock Ref:RH080722033 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Up to 80 Suffolk ram lambs are sold every year from the flock Ref:RH080722033 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

 

In contrast to most pedigree flockmasters, the Stuarts don’t flush any of their females or line breed. Instead, they prefer to breed good, sound commercial sheep with good fleshing ability, by selecting new stock rams to correct any faults in their ewes.

Furthermore, new stock rams are given a cut of all types of ewes to see how they perform as opposed to drawing individual females to particular rams.

Melvin added: “We’ve never chased pedigrees or line bred, we just farm sheep. Everything is done by eye. We do have good female lines, but we’re not keen on flushing purely because of the uncertainty of it.”

Their females are performing exceptionally well without the need for flushing too. Last year’s 16,000gns Maidenstone lamb sold at Shrewsbury, by Finn Christie, was bred from a Birness gimmer and was a full brother to Mr Christie's female champion and supreme overall at last month's Royal Highland Show. The reserve female at Ingliston, from Stewart Lathangie's Pyeston flock was a Birness ewe that had been purchased at the Aberdeen Christmas Classic as a ewe lamb.

 

At Birness they dont flush any of their females or line breed. Instead, they prefer to breed good, sound commercial sheep with good fleshing ability, by selecting new stock rams to correct any faults in their ewes Ref:RH080722054 Rob Haining / The

At Birness they dont flush any of their females or line breed. Instead, they prefer to breed good, sound commercial sheep with good fleshing ability, by selecting new stock rams to correct any faults in their ewes Ref:RH080722054 Rob Haining / The

 

Another in-lamb gimmer sold at the Christmas Classic at Thainstone to Paul Delves, produced a 4500gns female at last year's Three Nations event at Carlisle, for his Bridgeview flock.

Most years, about 75% of the flock is AI’d over two dates to help spread out the lambing a bit – young ewes one day and gimmers a fortnight later. Tups are put out with the remainder of the flock the day after the first AI.

A mixture of fresh and frozen semen is used with some of the best sires in the past being Rhaeadr Giggsy, an 8000gns purchase that bred the 20,000gns Birness Bolt in 2012 and Limestone Legacy, a former reserve Suffolk Stocktup of the Year owned in partnership with the Collessie and Pyston flocks. He was the sire of the 30,000gns Birness Playboy and 26,000gns Birness Freedom.

The 30,000gns Salpian Scuderia, shared with Stewart Craft and Paul Delves, was another to make his mark, having sired the 30,000gns Birness Bees Knees and last year’s Scottish National champion, Birness Box Office, which made 18,000gns. And of course, Ballynacannon Noah, a 6500gns purchase was a star performer having produced the 43,000gns Muzza.

Melvin added: “We’ve always looked to breed good strong, powerful sheep but also tups with fleshing ability and conformation. Up to 80 Suffolk ram lambs are sold every year from the flock and 75% of those are to commercial producers so we have to cater for their demands.”

Scanning percentages usually work out about 160% with those carrying triplets brought inside to straw bedded courts at the end of November, with the remainder, at the end of the first week in December, for a January 1, lambing kick off.

 

with the addition acreage, that allowed the family to increase flock numbers to 180 breeding ewes, but also retain extra females for selling either as ewe lambs or gimmers. Ref:RH080722057 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

with the addition acreage, that allowed the family to increase flock numbers to 180 breeding ewes, but also retain extra females for selling either as ewe lambs or gimmers. Ref:RH080722057 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

 

Birness has been a closed flock since it was established in 1976 from a couple of ewes from the home farm at Davishill and a select number from Tom Burgess’ Garthswick from Shetland. Hence all ewes bred productive and milky, with poor breeding/less productive females having been sold off years ago. Mastitis and reduced milk cause few if any issues too.

As a result, twin born lambs are left to run as twins with only triplet-born lambs lifted to be married up with single lambs, or onto a milking machine.

Minerals are provided all summer for the ewes which also have access to ad-lib waterproof powdered minerals and from December 1, when they come inside to straw-bedded courts and are fed a home-grown 18% protein mix depending on the number of lambs they are carrying, and hay. They also have access to molasses in ball feeders at this time which the Stuarts believe helps milk production.

Hay is replaced with silage as swedes as soon as the ewes start lambing, with the family lifting some 60t of home-grown turnips before lambing for feeding the ewes right through until weaning.

All lambs are given 150ml of colostrum via a stomach tube at two hours old, alongside an oral broad spectrum antibiotic and vitamin E injection, to ensure the best start in life.

At five-seven-days of age, when ewes and their offspring move out of individual pens into larger communal pens, lambs are scratched for orf.

 

Birness has been a closed flock since it was established in 1976 Ref:RH080722046 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Birness has been a closed flock since it was established in 1976 Ref:RH080722046 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

 

While all 350acres are ploughable, the ground is heavy, which means that most years, ewes and lambs don’t to get outside to grass during the day until February, depending on the weather, and 24/seven from March onwards.

Lambs are introduced to creep feeding from a month old, with the top 20 ram lambs destined for Lanark and Shrewsbury, drawn off early June onto a field of stubble turnips. Cabbages are introduced three weeks before the sale.

With only a couple of stock rams bought in each year, maintaining a hi health status, MV accreditation and Scrapie monitoring is a lot easier too, which in turn has opened new markets to the continent for Birness.

As a result, the flock has sold lambs and females privately to Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Holland, over the past couple of years.

With a further 300 forward cattle purchased every year for finishing off home-grown feeds and all silage and cropping work kept in house, there is never a dull moment at Milton of Birness when all the work is done themselves, with assistance only from part-time shepherd, Craig Paterson.

Their favourite time of year is nevertheless fast approaching, with the main breed sale at Lanark, just next week.

“We breed Suffolk sheep 364 days a year for that one day at the Scottish National Sale at Lanark – it’s the pinnacle of the year,” concluded Melvin.

FARM facts:

Family farm: George and Agnes, son Melvin and Nicola and their family of Murray who works full time on the farm alongside and Gemma who is in her first year at Craibstone University studying rural business management. Craig Patterson is employed part time to help out with the sheep.

Acreage: 350acres all ploughable of which 140acres are used to grow feed barley and 15 acres of swedes/stubble turnips and small acreage of cabbages

Livestock: 200 Birness Suffolk ewe flock and 300 store cattle bought in as forward stores for finishing at 720-750kg.

Pedigree sheep sales: Suffolk ram lambs sold at Lanark, Shrewsbury, Kelso and Thainstone, with 25 gimmers and ewe lambs sold privately, Carlisle Dark Diamonds sale, online and Thainstone Christmas Classic.

 

The Stuarts use a home made shelter for the powdered minerals Ref:RH080722035 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The Stuarts use a home made shelter for the powdered minerals Ref:RH080722035 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

 

ON THE spot:

Best investment: "Fully automatic milking machine which is able to rear lambs with minimal labour required."

Biggest achievement: "Getting married to Nicola and having two kids who will hopefully follow our footsteps into farming."

Best time of the year and why: "Lambing, because we are always chasing our dream to have a better crop of lambs than previous years."

Best Suffolk you’ve seen and why: "Pankymoor Prelude, Edinburgh champion in 1993. He was an outstanding ram and the Sire of the Year for three consecutive years."

Favourite pastime outwith farming: "Don't have any pastimes. Just eat, sleep and breed Suffolk sheep."