Few people will have benefitted more from being part of QMS' Grazing Group project than young start-up farmers, Ahren and Louise Urquhart at Maryfield, Aboyne, Aberdeenshire.
The couple took over the tenancy of the 100 hectares in February 2013 and initially stocked the farm with 250 Scotch Mule, Cheviot and Cheviot Mule ewes. Since then they have increased ewe numbers to 700 and the aim is to increase further to around 1000 ewes and possibly take some cattle for summer grazing.
Louise said: "The Grazing Group has had a huge part to play in helping us to realise the potential of the farm and encouraging us to make the changes in order to carry more stock."
It is especially important that the Urquharts make the most of natural resources as money is tight with no entitlements or Single Farm Payment and any increase in stocking has to come through improved management and utilisation of grass.
They have 700 ewes going to the tup this autumn and have retained 250 ewe lambs which will lamb in 2018 bringing them close to their 1000 ewe target.
The couple have taken on much of the advice from the Grazing Group meetings but it has not been easy for them with a serious mineral deficiency coming to light on the farm which affected the performance of the ewes and lambs.
New Zealand grazing expert, Trevor Cook suggested liver tests at one of the meetings and analysis showed that the whole farm is low in selenium and high in molybdenum which locks up available copper, meaning the sheep were also copper deficient. These findings are backed up by soil and grass analysis which shows that the soils and forage are within range for copper, but also show high levels of molybdenum.
Louise said: "We knew that our problems were down to mineral deficiencies so started using Animax Tracesure boluses with cobalt, selenium & iodine. Since doing further tests we have discovered that selenium was very low and high molybdenum was being antagonistic and locking up any available copper so we have now switched to Cosecure boluses which contain copper, cobalt and selenium, which seem to have improved things further. "
This year after bolusing the ewes pre-lambing they noticed they looked fitter. Louise also felt that bolusing lambs earlier this year (at their second Ovivac vaccination) has reduced the post weaning check they usually see. Left over boluses were administered to the tups, who, Louise said, have never looked so well!
Overall improved flock performance remains to be seen but by weaning time Ahren and Louise could see there was a significant improvement in the kgs weaned per hectare and they have sold store lambs to average £60 per head so far. Louise said: "Growth rates have been slower in 2016 compared with last year, however we are not alone, with most sheep farmers reporting a similar theme. Lambs were lighter at weaning, however the number of lambs increased, so we weaned 30kg more per hectare; at £1.80/kg, that equates to £54/ha which is £5400 over 100 hectares."
They lamb outdoors with last year's lambing percentage around 150%, which is up 10% from their first lambing in 2014. They hope that addressing the mineral deficiencies will result in an improvement in flock performance, leading to more lambs and that this, combined with increased stock numbers will lead to more kg per ha of liveweight produced from grass which is the ultimate aim of the QMS Grazing Groups.
The Urquharts have also adopted rotational grazing for about half the flock on areas of the farm which lend themselves to the system, and they are working on dividing the remainder of the farm into paddocks with electric fencing. About one third of the farm is rough grazing, which is hard to improve but through advice from the Grazing Group, Ahren and Louise are confident that they can farm the area to its full potential.
Emily Grant, Grassland Co-ordinator at Quality Meat Scotland commented: “Grazing livestock are reliant upon quality forage. But quality is more than just Metabolisable Energy (ME), D-Value and protein content. Mineral content plays a really important role.
“As we have seen with Louise and Ahren’s farm, the balance of minerals that their grazing provide, such as the high molybdenum and low selenium, has an impact on livestock productivity.”
She added: “Undertaking soil, blood, liver and forage analysis is helping to piece together the pieces of the jigsaw for Louise and Ahren and helping to unlock the productivity, and ultimately the profitability of their farm.”
For further information about the QMS Grazing Group project and details of the next series of meetings around Scotland, visit www.qmscotland.co.uk/grazing