A famous French author once wrote, 'Autumn is a second spring when every leaf’s a flower.' I can only imagine that in his native country he was lucky enough to witness on a regular basis, the stunning sights, and the kind autumnal weather that we have enjoyed in Scotland this year.

Everything on Pirntaton and the surrounding area; from the heather on the hill to the stands of mature hardwoods on the lower ground, have looked resplendent for so much longer than we are used to. It could of course be argued that September through to mid-November has in fact been the first and only spring like weather of 2021 in much of Scotland!

The near perfect grazing conditions through September and most of October saw some terrific lamb growth rates. We had aimed to have them all gone by mid-October, but a hold up in the sale of the lightest lambs, combined with those growth rates allowed us to finish a further 40% of those 'store' lambs, albeit at slightly lighter weights.

We have, however, watched on, admittedly with slight envy, at the almost exponential rise in the finished lamb price since and wonder if it is a missed opportunity. The upside is of course that the buyers of the lambs we did sell store will only be left with fond memories of a healthy margin when they do come to sell them, and more likely to come looking for them again next year.

As I have described before, our farming system is dependent on the production of as much liveweight from forage grown during our relatively short growing season as possible. We choose to do that with a large capital stock and selling the progeny at a relatively young age, whether it be finished or as forward stores, before we resort to the use of much purchased feed.

The much earlier lift in finished lamb values for the last year or two as compared to historical price patterns will necessitate a revisiting of the maths.

I am reminded of one or two excellent pieces of advice given to me over the years. The first, from my grandfather, was to always aim to have all the lambs gone from Pirntaton before the tups were out to produce the next season's. The second was never to regret a decision that was the right thing to do at the time. We can all be over critical of ourselves, in hindsight, for getting the timing of a sale or purchase a bit wrong.

The inevitable 'little bit of envy' around these rising lamb values has however given me a lot to think about. When considered alongside the continuing meteoric rise in the cost of fuel, fertiliser and feed, as well as the clear indication that all farming systems are about to be 'encouraged' down a much more regenerative, low carbon path, it seems to me that the time has never been better for some serious discussions between livestock and arable producers about how we can work together in finding solutions.

The thought of moving our finishing stock onto arable cover crops, winter cereals or high-quality grass/legume/herbal leys incorporated into arable rotations, genuinely excites me. The potential to cut costs, increase output at the same time as building soil carbon, increasing biodiversity, and possibly helping secure future support payments is colossal. Throw in the opportunity to gradually rebuild the fencing and water infrastructure on these arable farms as we go, and there’s not a lot not to like. If there are any arable farmers with a similar vision of the future, please get in touch.

Our cows have now all been weaned and the first half of them scanned last week, with the remainder to do on Tuesday. We have practised this early weaning (averaging 150 days) for several years now, finding that it lets us target feed to the cows and calves as separate groups much more effectively.

Cows are way past peak lactation and though of considerable comfort, offer less and less as far as nutrition goes to the calves with every week that passes. Weaning cows whilst still in great condition can save a considerable amount of feed over the winter; even allowing us to factor in a little loss of condition pre-calving. Calf growth rate to weaning of 1.25kg per day with creep only introduced shortly before weaning, although not startling, is reasonable given the way we use the cows to manage pasture over the summer/autumn months. Calves have been housed, and after a noisy few days, the cows are turned back out for wintering outdoors.

The heifers we have had on the bale grazing for a while, and about to be joined by the younger cows, are looking well. We have however, resorted to using ring feeders, after a trial of allowing the access to the silage simply behind the electric wire, with silage utilisation and heifer contentment levels much improved since. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The main disappointment on Pirntaton over the last month has been a disappointing scanning for the first half of the cows. As I’ve previously said, we had decided to cut mating time to just two cycles, and despite semen testing and swapping the bulls after the first cycle, we ended up with six empties out of the first 57 scanned. On closer inspection, one of the bulls had a very poor success rate during the second cycle (under 30%), despite having settled more than 70% in the first cycle. Thankfully he followed a bull with a close to 80% success rate in the first cycle or the results might have been even worse.

The more successful bull had a 90% hit rate for the second cycle, giving a 96% pregnancy rate in that group over two cycles. Reasonably detailed bulling records have allowed us to find the probable problem, rather than abandoning the benefits of a shorter calving period going forward. The problem bull’s future at Pirntaton looks pretty bleak from where I’m standing!

Tups were joined with the stud ewes on November 5, and commercial ewes were fluke drenched last week in readiness for moving onto better pasture for flushing around the 18th of this month before joining with the tups on the 29th. And so, the whole cycle begins again…….

In our late lambing system with a relatively high stocking rate, the stockpiling of enough good quality feed, and resisting the temptation to eat it with something else before tupping time, is one of our biggest challenges and limitations. This is made slightly easier with the knowledge that the 10 days either side of the tups going in will give us the best response and financial return on that feed.

The proviso to this is that the ewes are in good condition at the start of that period, and that we reduce ewes back to maintenance feed levels gradually over the 30 days after. To manage this, we will have the ewes rotate through the paddock system twice. On the first pass we will skim graze, allowing the ewes to only eat the best quality portion of the sward, hopefully maximising the number of ewes holding to first service and scanning well. Thereafter, on the second rotation, we will ask the ewes to graze the sward considerable tighter on what will be the final grazing of the season. Nutrition levels will be slightly lower but more than adequate for the ewe’s second cycle. This better 'clean out' and the subsequent rest of around 100 days before the next graze will ensure grass growth and quality is optimised for the spring.

Lastly, this week sees us hosting our small Farmax benchmarking group. These meetings, which are excellently facilitated by Poppy Frater of SRUC, take place five times a year, with the five members taking it in turn to have their farm and business scrutinised by the group. Without fail the meetings leave us all quite exhausted but also enthused and ready to tackle the challenges and opportunities that face us.

I am reminded of the saying, 'If you are the cleverest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.' I can only hope that occasionally I have as positive an effect on their businesses as they all have had on ours.