Genetics, health and nutrition combined with the Robertson family’s enthusiasm and attention to detail have led to Titaboutie Farm near Aboyne in Aberdeenshire, being selected as a finalist for Agriscot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year.
This prestigious competition is run by Agriscot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and sponsored by Thorntons Solicitors.
The rented 360 hectare Titaboutie is farmed by Andrew Robertson in partnership with his retired parents, George and Jean, and his wife, also Jean. It is an excellent example of a truly mixed farm in the north east of Scotland, with about 80 hectares of cereals, and a mixture of rotational, permanent and hill grass.
The farm runs from 400 feet to around 1,400 feet above sea level and the family also rents seasonal grazing each year. The business has 450 homebred Highlander ewes and 125 ewe hogs and the cattle enterprise includes of 160 home-bred suckler cows plus 30 heifers.
The sheep enterprise has changed significantly in recent years with the introduction of Highlander ewes and Highlander and Primera rams.
“Efficiency in sheep farming is all about producing as much of the required product as cost-effectively as possible. The Highlanders produce a lot more lambs and are easy to look after, with lambs which are strong and vigorous,” said Mr Robertson.
The first Highlander rams were bought in 2010 and the flock is now at least 75% Highlander. Lambing percentage at scanning has increased year-on-year from 160% for the traditional cross ewes to 195% in 2017 for 430 ewes with only six barren. The 132 ewe hoggs scanned at 120% with only three of them empty.
“The focus on maternal traits means we have a lot of ewes rearing triplets and hoggs with twins,” said Mr Robertson.
The mothering instinct of the Highlanders and viability of their lambs, coupled with careful management of the ewes all year round, particularly at lambing time, means that this year only 11% of lambs were lost from scanning in January to weaning in August.
Although Andrew and Jean Robertson’s children have grown up and moved away from the farm, they still come back and help at lambing time. The family also employs a vet or college student to help at the busiest times.
Lambing takes place outdoors from the end of March. Mr Robertson said: “Key to the whole lambing operation is getting lambs delivered safely and then getting good quality colostrum into them in the first few hours. Having a dedicated workforce helps us to do this and minimises problems further down the line.”
Five years ago, the family identified a selenium, cobalt and copper deficiency in the ewes and they have been bolused ever since. The result has been a marked improvement in performance and last year they also gave the smallest of the lambs a bolus.
The result was an improvement in growth rates which was such that they overtook the bigger lambs. In 2017, they treated all the lambs, and while it is still a bit early to say, Mr Robertson believes growth rates have improved across the flock.
The majority of the Robertsons’ lambs are sold in October, November and December when there is a good demand from the abattoir. They are finished first on grass, then a hybrid rape and kale mix with the tail end finished on turnips. Those which are still on the farm after Christmas are supplemented with home-grown cereals and finishing pellets.
Lambs are sold to McIntosh Donald and, looking at the 2016 lamb crop, 91% of the lambs reached the target weight of 16 to 21kg deadweight, 99% were U or R grade with the remaining one per cent making E grade.
As an entirely closed flock (only rams are purchased directly from Innovis) the Robertsons find there is no need to vaccinate for abortion. They also only worm ewes once a year although they dose for fluke twice.
Footvax has been used for the past few years to cut down on footrot and any ewe which needs treated more than once is culled.
“The advantage of breeding your own replacements is that they can be selected from the best breeding families with no health problems,” said Mr Robertson
This year 135 ewe lambs were selected at weaning to be tupped in early November. In recent years they clipped the ewe lambs in August, which they believe helps them grow on better over the winter and also significantly reduces problems with lambs suckling in the spring.
The family were delighted that they were nominated for Agriscot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year and thrilled to be one of the three finalists for the award this year.
“Although the sheep enterprise is only one-third of what we do at Titaboutie, it is very important to us. The sheep compliment the cattle enterprise and, with more ewes and hoggs to the tup this year, I can see us expanding our flock at the expense of some cereals in the future,” said Mr Robertson.