It's been a long awaited, much anticipated event but after two years of covid cancellations, it'll be third time lucky for Robert and Hazel McNee, when they are finally able to open their farm gates at Over Finlarg, as host farmers for the National Sheep Association Scotland's biennial Scotsheep.

Originally due to be staged in 2020, the couple and the organising committee have had a most frustrating couple of years, having to cope with no fewer than three enforced cancellations and plans put on hold due to the pandemic. However, it's now all systems go on this 740-acre upland/hill unit which is home to 1100 breeding sheep and 200 suckler cows, just outside, Tealing, Dundee.

Well-known for producing superior quality commercial and pedigree stock in both the sheep and cattle sectors, the McNees have made major improvements to this exposed unit which rises from 800-1200ft above sea-level, to allow them to carry the numbers that they do.

Since the couple moved into Over Finlarg in 2011, they have been able to increase stocking densities with improved drainage, applying significant amounts of lime and re-seeding virtually every field.

Add in miles upon miles of fencing, a hill road and new buildings, and the business is a much more altogether, efficient and productive working farm unit producing the best of commercial and pedigree stock.

Read more: Willy Millar, NSA Scotsheep chairman welcomes all to the event

Furthermore, in the space of just 10 years, they have established an almost self-sufficient business based on home-grown feeds and breeding stock comprising 600 North Country Cheviot Lairg-type ewes which are run alongside 200 Blackfaces, 60 Texels and 40 traditional and crossing-type Bluefaced Leicesters.

All four flocks are used to breed female replacements, stock tups and breeding rams for local markets. The Texels and Blackfaces are also kept to produce an additional 200 Texel cross and Mule ewe hoggs which are tupped with a Beltex to sell with lambs at foot in May.

Such is the demand for these breeding sheep, that Upper Finlarg units have sold to £230, through United Auctions' Stirling Centre. It is however, the sale of their 260 Cheviot Mule gimmers, which they are better known for, having produced a new centre record at Longtown in 2021, when they sold for £232 per head, to a regular buyer.

While all the North Country Cheviot gimmers and 100 of the best NCC stock ewes are tupped by Auldallan rams – hired from Robert and Hazel's brother in-law, Bob Adam, Newhouse of Glamis – to produce replacements, the remainder are crossed to home-bred traditional-type Bluefaced Leicesters to breed Cheviot Mule gimmers cashed at Longtown and Forfar.

The best of the Blackface gimmers are also bred pure for replacements, with the bottom end put to home-bred crossing Blue rams to breed Scotch Mule females to sell as hoggs with Beltex lambs at foot. Those which aren't big enough to be tupped as ewe lambs are retained for another year to be crossed with a home-bred Texel ram to breed Texel crosses for putting to a Beltex and selling with lamb(s) at foot.

Having small pure-bred flocks of Texels and Bluefaced Leicesters, the couple is able to make use of the best of the ram lambs as breeding tups the first year, and sell them following year as shearlings at good money, through Stirling, Huntly, Dingwall and Forfar. Well-known stock getters, their Texel shearlings regularly average in excess of £1000 per head, with the Blues having sold to £1700 in the past.

Those which don't make the grade are finished and sold deadweight, through Scotbeef, with the first lot away by the end of September and the last, by mid-March.

It might be a simple system, but it works, and by relying mostly on home-bred rams or tups from known sources, disease is kept to a minimum.

Lambing also works well, albeit spread out over a longer period than need be to ensure sufficient shed space should the weather turn bad for the youngest of lambs.

"It is a late area here and on average it has been known to get snow one year in five in April, so we do like to spread the lambing out a bit when we only have accommodation for 150 indoors," said Robert.

"We could lamb more inside, but we've found it is more beneficial to keep the cows inside during the winter, to give the grass on the hill a rest and time to recover for the ewes lambing there from mid-April onwards," said Robert.

"It's no more expensive keeping cows inside. If anything it costs less to in winter them as the cow is not having to feed herself to keep warm, and we can capture the manure if they're wintered inside.

"Ideally, we have found it's best to leave grass to rest for 90 days with no stock on it as it comes away far better and quicker after that. Therefore, we let the cows graze out on the hill until about Christmas when we bring them inside onto straw bedded courts and then let them back out to the hill once they've calved in April."

The hill, which has been improved significantly over the years by applying lime and drilling clover, has also been split up to enable better management of the grassland for the sheep and the cattle grazing it. This allows rotational grazing of a sort to practised when possible thereby maximising grass growth.

The couple also rents 40 acres of grass from a neighbouring farmer and a 400-acre heather hill for tupping and wintering respectively. The additional grass provides a good flush for the ewes and the hill gives their own ground a rest before lambing and the many more mouths it has to feed in the spring and summer months.

In contrast to most flock masters, the couple doesn't feed concentrates to pregnant ewes. Instead, they rely more on home-grown feeds – turnips and barley. While some of the ewes are wintered on the heather hill, others are on turnips to save the grass for when they have lambed. After scanning, they are split up with only the twin and triplet-bearing ewes receiving supplementary barley and some Davidsons ewe rolls, on the run up to lambing. Nothing is fed during or after lambing so save miss-mothering.

The Bluefaced Leicesters and Texels kick off the proceedings, lambing inside in straw-bedded courts, mid March, with the Cheviot and Blackie twin-bearing ewes lambing outside on the hill, where there is more shelter, from early April onwards. Single and triplet bearing ewes are lambed in fields closer to home in case there are any issues, while the Cheviot Mules lamb in fields from early May, onwards.

Most years overall lambing percentages work out at 175% and this year has been much the same, which coupled with the early spring, has helped reduce mortality rates compared to previous years hit by bad weather.

The couple has also noticed increased lamb vigour this year by giving the ewes an iodine and vitamin E bolus after scanning.

While lambing is always a busy time, so too is calving at Over Finlarg when there are 200 sucklers which calve down from the end of March onwards with the Luings, through to the Limousins throughout May/June and November/December.

The McNees are almost better known for their cattle, having sold Luing bulls from their 120-cow Finlarg herd to a top of 18,000gns for Finlarg Warrior, at Castle Douglas, in 2019. Equally impressive, their 60-cow Limousin unit which is run under the Westhall prefix boasts an 11,500gns lead sale for a bull sold at Stirling.

Read more: Bumper packed Scotsheep planned...

The remainder of the cattle enterprise is made up of 15 pedigree Simmentals, run under young their children, Kate (9) and Alan's (7) Finlarg herd and a select number of registered Charolais kept as a hobby.

Some of the most influential stock bulls in the past have been, the Luing, Benhar Lennox; the Limousin Westhall Jammy and Team Drambuie, a Simmental.

Bulls not suitable for breeding are sold entire at 13months of age on a home-grown high energy feed ration based on wheat and barley, through ABP Perth, with the aim of gaining 1kg carcase weight per day.

There is no doubt the couple has invested heavily in the business, but ultimately, they are also reaping rewards. However, they admitted there are few if any input costs that can be cut back on when breeding high value livestock.

What they have done this year though is concentrate all fertiliser on the silage and cropping fields only, with grazing ground relying solely on farmyard manure.

It is probably just as well too as time is limited when they have an extremely busy couple of weeks ahead preparing for ScotSheep. As it is the McNees have just one full-time employee, in Alistair McCarthy from Caithness although local lass, Jodie Jackson has been helping out since lambing time.

It will nevertheless all be worth it in the end, especially if the weather remains fair and visitors are not only able to catch a glimpse of some of the best stock in the country, but also spectacular views of the Sidlaw hills. Add in samples of the award winning Ogilvy vodka at the top of the hill, from the nearby Ogilvy on-farm distillery and it promises to be a day out not to be missed.

The family is also donating two black Cheviot ewe hoggs to raise funds for Prostate Cancer Scotland, so remember to dig deep folks!

FARM facts:

Acreage: 740acres at Upper Finlarg which rises from 800-1200ft above sea-level. The couple also rent a 400-acre heather hill and 40 acres of grass from a neighbouring farmer.

Stock: Sheep – 600 North Country Cheviot Lairg-type ewes, 200 Blackface ewes, 60 Texels and 40 traditional and crossing-type Bluefaced Leicesters, used for breeding home-bred replacements, stock rams and breeding rams; Cheviot Mule gimmers to sell and 200 Texel cross and Mule ewe hoggs, tupped to a Beltex to sell with lambs at foot. Cattle – 200 suckler cows to include 120 pedigree Luings, 60 Limousins; 15 Simmentals.

Farm improvements: Draining, liming, fencing and new buildings constructed over the past 10 years.

Farm help: Alistair McCarthy, Caithness, works full time on the farm, with Jody Jackson, being employed for the lambing and the run up to ScotSheep. All machinery work is very much a family affair, with brother-in-law Bob Adam assisting with the sowing and harvesting and Robert's father and brother, Robert and Andrew McNee, helping out at silage time.

Cropping: 75acres of wheat and barley, 25 acres of swedes and 150acres of silage.