IMPROVING the productivity of the hill flock was the main discussion topic at the recent Peebles monitor farm meeting, hosted by Ed and Kate Rowell, who farm Hundleshope Farm, three miles south of Peebles.
Hundleshope, a 1,800 acre (729 ha) unit, is one of the most recent additions to the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland.
The majority of the farm, almost 1,450 acres, is classified as hill, with the interlocking heather-clad hills peaking at 2,200 feet.
The Rowells run a stratified sheep enterprise, with the hills grazed by the base flock of 350 Scottish Blackface ewes. These Blackface ewes, tupped from late November, are bred pure, generally achieving four crops.
Blackface gimmers are tupped by Bluefaced Leicesters, to produce Scotch Mule replacements for the in-bye flock of 450, which are crossed with terminal sires for prime lamb production.
While scanning figures for the Rowells’ Blackfaces over the last four years are improving, from 67 per cent in 2010 to 94 per cent in 2013, the end results are still disappointing.
This year, 323 ewes scanned 94 per cent (303 lambs), 234 lambs (72 per cent) were born alive, with 219 “plus some not gathered and still on the hill”, representing 68 per cent, tallied at shearing on 27th July.
“In that scan of 94 per cent, there were 40 pairs of twins, but worryingly 60 empty ewes,” Ed Rowell told the community group.
“Currently our Blackies are not producing enough lambs for us to be selective with replacement ewe lambs,” added Kate Rowell.
“Ideally, we would like to select replacements from ewes which have a trouble-free lambing and keep their condition while rearing quality, weighty lambs. But in reality we keep every Blackie ewe lamb, and even then sometimes don’t have enough.
“In the past, to maintain hill flock numbers, we’ve had to buy in Blackface ewe lambs. We purchased 80 in 2011, which didn’t work well. They didn’t know the hill and just hung about at the bottom, and even though we tried driving them up, they just came back down again!
“Our initial target is to annually average a lamb per ewe. But while we are forced to keep every ewe lamb, irrespective of her quality or whether or not her mother actually produced a lamb the previous year, we know it will be difficult to achieve our target.
“We’re aware that we must build improvements into the hill flock, from the bottom up, to have any hope of lifting flock fertility and the quality of lambs the ewes produce.”
The ewes are not hefted, making gathering time consuming and challenging. Usually the flock is gathered for clipping towards end of July, weaning is scheduled for September (19th September this year), tupping at end of November and then scanning in February.
Ed Rowell explained that due to the miserable summer of 2012, last year they gathered the hill three times instead of four, by amalgamating the weaning and tupping gather.
The group recommended delaying shearing in the future, until around 20th August, and combine weaning with shearing. Then to turn the ewes onto better grazing, to ‘flush’ them, giving them the opportunity to regain some condition post-weaning and pre-tupping, to improve conception rates.
The ewes are tupped on in-bye ground and in recent years have been given high energy blocks at tupping. “We think that these blocks have helped improve the scanning rate,” commented Kate Rowell. The group recommended also providing feed blocks out on the hill, to help sustain the ewes and aid embryo survival after tupping.
Regarding the current practice of mating the gimmers with Bluefaced Leicesters, the group recommended that instead of culling the four crop ewes, check them over, put the sounder ones to the Bluefaced Leicester and tup the gimmers with Blackfaces.
Over the last five years the Rowells have invested in some performance recorded tups. “We’ve also bought tups at auction, which we knew absolutely nothing about,” added Kate Rowell.
“And we’ve decided that we would definitely prefer to have some indication as to how tups will breed. So this year we’ve purchased three performance recorded Blackface shearlings from the same breeder.
“The EBVs (estimated breeding values) for these tups are really good for the traits we need – maternal ability, litter size, eight week weight and mature size.”
To discuss the Rowell’s hill sheep enterprise, the group gathered at the junction of the Glenfinnin and Hundleshope burns, amidst the heather hills.
Here, Dr Alistair Hamilton from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) highlighted the best practice for muirburn, the rotational burning of heather, on the farm.
The key to progressing with larger areas of burning was to burn small controlled strips to act as fire breaks to ensure the control of the flames.
To make best use of the hill and improve grazing for the flock the group agreed that a muirburn strategy was developed.
The Rowells have electronically identified all their sheep and on 19th September, hill flock weaning day, the Rowells will be weighing all the hill ewes and lambs through an EID reading and weight recording weigh crate.
“We want to identify the ewes which wean the heavier lambs, while retaining their condition,” explained Kate Rowell.
“So we’ll re-weigh the ewes again at the end of November, pre-tupping.”
The weighing will be done by Martin Tompkins of Borders Software, based in Wales. He maintains that the crate will weigh and record the individual weights of 500 electronically identified sheep in two hours.
All interested in seeing this EID enabled weigh crate in action are welcome to Hundleshope Farm on 19th September.
The next full Peebles monitor farm meeting will be in November.
For further information, please contact either of the Joint Facilitators:
Jennifer Brown, 01835 823322, email: email@example.com
Chris McDonald, 0131 535 3436, email: Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org
For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, visit: www.qmscotland.co.uk/minitorfarms
Caption 1: Ed and Kate Rowell who led the community group around Hundleshope Farm.
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