Where has the summer gone? Yesterday it was the start of lambing and tomorrow we’ll be selecting our tupping groups. Or so it feels. Despite it being hard work I enjoy lambing, but I also look forward to a quieter spell afterwards.

Except it somehow hasn’t happened and now we’re getting lambs ready for our first store sales already. It is a good moment to reflect on whether management choices have worked, and an even better moment to start thinking about management changes before the next sheep production cycle starts again.

Last year we decided to blood-sample a selection of lambs from each management group to identify any trace element deficiencies, and some shortages were indeed identified. So we’ve used the results to change the management this year by giving all the lambs a bolus at marking, and we are already very pleased with the results.

The cattle are enjoying some late summer grazing on the hill where they make a fantastic job of maintaining the vegetation in good condition thanks to a natural drive to roam, and they choose to spend a lot of time on poorer ground. Like many upland and hill farms, we struggle with bracken on the moorland but the cattle help to break through denser growth and maintain paths.

I imagine the horns on a Highlander may be quite beneficial too. The ban on chemical bracken control without offering a viable alternative is a big concern for us and impacts not only the productive capacity of the land, but also its biodiversity value.

The bulls are still running with the cows for another week or two and I suspect that they are looking forward to getting back together to retreat to the boys’ park. A homebred bull that has been running on the largest hill block has been demented for most of the summer, desperately trying to make sure he can keep tabs on all his ladies.

That’s easier said than done when one’s mating grounds extend over hundreds and hundreds of hectares, and he has been covering quite an impressive distance. Anytime he leaves one group to go in search of another he likes to move along the main roads and announce his journey as he passes the farmhouse, especially around midnight. He’s a gentle and handsome chap which has made him very popular with tourists but his laid back attitude has caused several traffic jams.

Having a bull that actively goes in search of his females, and working with cows with an inherent drive to range across large areas, is perhaps not desperately desirable in a field-only setup, but in our system it is essential. It is one of those traits that would be great to isolate when analysing cattle DNA, alongside hardiness and a feed efficiency score for poor quality roughage.

We’ve been analysing the genetic potential of our whole herd for a few years now and the results have been very interesting. But the more we have drilled into the figures, the more questions have arisen which remain unanswered. This is especially true when trying to utilise genomic scoring on a specialist hill breed such as the Highlander, and in a very extensive system. For example, the ability to lay down fat quickly and efficiently during our shorter growing season so that the cow can take herself through the winter on deferred grazing is hugely important to us.

Genomic analysis can help to identify the genetic potential of an animal to deposit backfat and marbling. These scores are undoubtedly relevant when assessing market suitability of different bloodlines and animals but if not fully understood, farmers could inadvertently end up selecting animals not suited to their farm system and environment.

Overly focused breeding for optimum backfat for example could compromise the extent to which animals maintain visceral fat around the organs (abdominal fat) which is arguably the most important type of fat from a cattle resilience point of view. The more traditional and native breeds do not necessarily deposit subcutaneous fat to the same extent as their continental counterparts due to a thicker hide and coat.

Scottish Government has already indicated that some form of breeding value, potentially including genetic trait valuation, may play a part in future agricultural support. The question is, how will this be implemented? Who will make the decision on what targets to aim for?

The genetic potential for feed conversion efficiency as a proxy for methane efficiency will likely be of particular interest for government in their quest to tick the climate box, but do they understand where the phenotype data has come from to inform the genomic scoring, and are we aware of its limitations and the resultant necessity for continued subjective selection, even based on genetic data? A Limousin will likely outperform a Highlander on a barley diet, and a Galloway will fare much better on moorland grazing than a Charolais. Will diets and breeds be taken into account?

As an industry we find ourselves in very challenging and uncertain times which are putting a lot of pressure on us. Add to that the increasing level of red tape, cross compliance reporting and occasional need to submit the same data to authorities multiple times and there’s really not much time left to spend outside the office. It reminds me of the ‘Racecourse Paradox’, a thought problem developed by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea.

In simple terms, it argues that the distance of a racecourse is made up of two halves, and each of those halves in turn is also made up of two halves, and so on. So there are infinitely many parts to make up the whole distance. A runner wishing to complete the race would need to tackle every part of the full distance which means that he or she would have to complete infinitely many tasks in order to finish the race which is impossible. And because there are infinitely many parts to the distance, there is no initial distance for the runner to traverse because every bit of distance can be halved again.

The paradox therefore argues that the race can neither be started nor finished which means that motion is just an illusion. This does of course not include the motion of sheep escaping during a gather. I can confirm that that motion is very real.