Increasing sheep productivity and returns while keeping flock management simple was the challenge set for the Isle of Mull Monitor Farm community group at their recent meeting.
The Mull Monitor Farm, part of the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) network of monitor farms throughout Scotland, is Torloisk, a rugged and challenging 7,600 acre unit on the island’s west coast, farmed on a five year short limited duration tenancy by Iain MacKay.
In addition to his pedigree fold of 50 plus Highland cows, Mr MacKay runs a total of approximately 850 ewes – 400 Scottish Blackfaces, 400 Cheviot X Blackface and 50 stud Cheviots.
The 2011 lambing percentage figures are calculated on the number of lambs reaching saleable stage (some are retained for breeding). In 2011 Mr MacKay’s flock achieved 88% regarded as good for Mull and up 9% on the previous year.
Currently the Torloisk stocking density is 0.07 livestock units per hectare and Mr MacKay is keen to try to move towards 0.09 LU/ha, up to 350 additional ewes.
To make a better fit with future support packages and add options to the sheep enterprise, where the soil depth and quality have justified the costs some of the Torloisk grassland (there are 380 acres “below the hill dyke”) has been improved and forage crops grown.
Other than assistance when extra hands are necessary, in particular gathering, all the work is done by Mr MacKay, with the workload especially heavy in the spring, when ewes lambing and cows calving happens at the same time.
In addition to aiming to increase ewe numbers, Mr MacKay emphasised to the group that he also wanted to lift the percentage of lambs weaned, while keeping flock management and labour demands low.
In New Zealand, two decades after the withdrawal of subsidies in the mid-1980s, thanks to more and heavier lambs, sheep meat production had increased despite the national flock having almost halved. This increase in efficiency and output had mainly been achieved by farmers selecting breeding sheep with superior genetics for productivity, coupled with functionality and ease of management – summarised as Easycare.
A number of Scottish sheep farmers, working with various breeds, have already introduced New Zealand-style, Easycare principles into their flocks.
“My aim is to develop a productive and Easycare Cheviot hill flock, from the current Cheviot cross Blackface flock. I plan to buy Cheviot tups with good EBV (Estimated Breeding Value) figures for maternal traits, in the hope of lifting the quality of the female replacements,” explained Mr MacKay.
SAC Sheep Specialist, John Vipond, told the group that the best way of speeding up genetic improvement is to select home-bred replacements, particularly in hefted flocks kept in challenging environments like Torloisk.
Some of the basic selection guidelines for retained breeding stock include establishing the traits you want to improve within your flock e.g. high natural fertility, prolificacy, ease of lambing, lamb vigour and mothering ability. Likewise he advised farmers to establish the traits they want to eradicate eg foot problems and susceptibility to internal parasites such as worms and fluke.
Dr Vipond also urged producers to be regimented in following basic selection rules. These include selecting for natural fertility and prolificacy by not keeping replacements from ewes which were barren as gimmers. Farmers should consider replacements which were conceived in the first cycle and consider twins as long as both lambs are equally good.
For ease of lambing, lamb vigour and mothering ability, Dr Vipond encouraged farmers not to keep as replacements any animals which needed assistance at birth or to suck. He also urged producers to consider higher weaning weight lambs. And for ease of management he said ewes with persistent foot problems or which require additional dosing for fluke or worms should not be kept.
According to Dr Vipond it is important to clearly identify ewes whose lambs should not be retained and ensure their lambs are not considered as replacements either by culling or putting them to a terminal sire.
Accurate recording of the better and poorer performing ewes is important for a flock improvement programme and electronic identification (EID), despite its loudly voiced negatives, is a useful tool for this task. Two EID companies demonstrated their tag reading technology and additional equipment at the meeting – Stocktrace and DM Handling Systems.
The group were reminded that irrespective of all the planning, recording, re-seeding and feed availability improvements one possibly uncontrollable threat could under-mine all Mr MacKay’s hopes of increasing flock numbers, lambing percentages and productivity – bracken.
Like many extensive, rugged terrain units, the only feasible and effective bracken control on Torloisk is spraying with the herbicide Asulam (trade name – Asulox). However, unless successful challenges are made to legislation which will see the use of Asulox banned from 31st December 2012, the bracken on Torloisk and many other Scottish hill farms will inevitably spread, reducing the grazing, while increasing risks to animal and human health.