14th November 2013

Breed Switch Sees Ayrshire BIG Farmer Improve Hill Sheep Margin

An Ayrshire livestock producer has seen his hill sheep net margin improve by £1,522 and his labour input reduce substantially following a decision to change the breed of sheep run on one part of his farm.

Chris Grierson, who runs Laight and Minnivey Farms near Dalmellington with his wife Tracey, made the decision to switch from Blackface ewes to Welsh Mountain and Herdwicks on part of the hill at Laight.

The unit is an upland/hill farm with 81 ha of permanent grass and 684 ha of rough grazing - 644 ha owned at Laight with 121 ha tenanted at Minnivey.  The farm runs about 750 mostly Blackface ewes of which 650 are Blackface ewes bred both pure and crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester for production of mule ewe lambs for sale. Additionally 40 mule ewes are bred to Texel rams and there are 60 Welsh Mountain and Herdwick ewes.

The Griersons first considered the potential of alternative hill breeds after a thought-provoking visit to Tardoes Farm, Muirkirk in June 2012, organised by the Ayrshire Business Improvement Group (BIG), one of a network of BIG groups run by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

The host farmer, David Cooper, was at that time running 3,000 Herdwick and Welsh Mountain ewes and 780 hoggs. His true hill flock routinely scanned at 115% and over 90% of lambs were sold or retained without the need to give them any concentrates, feed blocks or conserved forage. David had to assist only a couple of ewes each year at lambing and these were then earmarked and culled.

“Chris was so impressed by the performance of this flock that he decided to replace the Blackface ewes on an under-performing area of his own hill with some draft Welsh Mountain and Herdwick ewes purchased from David Cooper,” said BIG group facilitator, Raymond Crerar of SAC Consulting, a division of SRUC.

The challenge the Griersons face can be traced back to 2000, when a 100 ha block of hill was returned to the Grierson family after opencast. Before opencast, the block carried 150 Blackface ewes which were crossed. Following its reinstatement 100 Blackface ewes were grazed on the area and consistently only scanned at 70% with a very high barren rate.  This number was gradually reduced.

“The numbers on this block were then gradually reduced to 70 ewes but scanning still proved disappointing despite concentrate feeding being introduced pre and during tupping and a generous feeding programme from scanning until mid May,” said Mr Grierson.

“Despite reducing the number of ewes, scanning was very disappointing at consistently 70% with a high barren rate and only ever half a dozen sets of twins from that block,” said Mr Grierson. He was worried about the lack of productivity and the future of his LFASS payments on that area if it couldn’t be grazed.

As a trial, the Griersons purchased 35 Welsh Mountain and 35 Herdwick draft ewes last September and turned them onto the block. The ewes foraged well and seemed to thrive. He borrowed two tups (one of each breed) and kept the ewes bred pure on the hill to give a direct comparison between breeds.

The ewes received the same health treatments as the existing stock, including a Heptavac vaccine but, unlike their predecessors, they received no supplementary feeding at tupping.

The 70 ewes all scanned at 120% in early February with 14 pairs expected in the Welsh Mountains, three pairs in the Herdwicks and only three sheep, Herdwicks, scanned empty.

After scanning, the ewes carrying singles were returned to the hill and not fed. The ewes carrying twins were brought inbye and offered silage and as a result of the weather they were initially offered Rumivite feed blocks.

Due to the harsh winter and snow cover on the inbye, three bales were consumed but interestingly the four feed blocks that were offered were left untouched and had to be fed elsewhere on the farm.

Like many hill farmers, the late snowfall resulted in sheep losses and nine of the ewes were lost in a drift on the hill pre-lambing. The single bearing ewes were lambed on the hill. At lambing time the sheep were monitored from a distance with no intervention required. All of the ewes lambed unassisted.

At marking, the Welsh Mountains and Herdwicks collectively tallied a 103% lambing. To date the lambs have grown well, in particular the Welsh Mountain lambs which appear better fleshed.  The lambs are destined for the light lamb market with some select females being retained for breeding.

A like-for-like comparison (see tables below) was then carried out to assess the cost benefit between the two different sheep breeds on the same block of land.

The net benefit was £1,522.50 as a result of no concentrate costs and reduced silage and an increase in lamb sales.  As well as an increased income and costs saved, the Griersons mainly benefited from a significant labour saving by reducing the time associated with feeding and lambing these ewes at the busiest time of the year. No value has been included for labour in the comparisons.

Chris is delighted with the performance of these sheep on the poorest area of his farm. In particular he prefers the Welsh Mountain ewe as she is better suited to his land type and her lambs are easily fleshed. He plans to increase their numbers and introduce them further across areas of his hill in the future.

“Our intention now is to role the use of the new breeds out further across areas of the hill. They are great sheep – they are easily handled, fatten well and don’t take much to keep, but your fences need to be good!” observed Mr Grierson.

Chris is a member of the Ayrshire and Renfrewshire Business Improvement Group which QMS has been running for nearly three years. This beef and sheep group is part of a network of 22 groups across Scotland which have the purpose of enhancing the competitive performance of the participating businesses. The group members exchange business knowledge on financial and technical aspects of farming as well as monitoring and benchmarking their performance figures against sector targets and other businesses within the group. The group is facilitated by Raymond Crerar of SAC Consulting.

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