Novel genetics coupled with traditional breeds and practices are running hand in hand for Selkirk-based Bowhill Farming.
The team at Bowhill, led by Sion Williams, have an open-minded approach to both breeding and management, which has been essential in progressing the 6,800 flock to a position where it is fit for the future.
The dedication of the team at Bowhill led to the business being announced as a finalist for the AgriScot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year 2018 in November, an award which is run by AgriScot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and sponsored by Thorntons Solicitors. The aim of the award is to showcase excellence in the production of sheep in Scotland and raise the profile of the dedication and stock management skills behind the production of Scotch Lamb PGI.
Bowhill Farming Ltd has an integrated mixed sheep enterprise, with both hill and lowland flocks working hand in hand. The hill flock comprises of 3,850 Scottish Blackface ewes and 1,600 South Country Cheviots.
Two thirds of the Blackface ewes are bred pure and the remaining third bred to Aberfield and Aberdale tups to produce crossbred ewes for use in the lowland flock.
In previous years all the Cheviot ewes have been bred pure, but this year some will be tupped by Aberfield and Aberdale rams to hopefully add value to the lambs sold.
Mr Williams outlined the day to day management of the flocks: “We have a team of three shepherds, with one working full time with the lowland flock and two working with the Blackface hill flock.”
He added: “The Cheviot flock is managed on a contract basis by a neighbouring farm, helping both businesses spread their costs and maximise efficiency.”
Grazing for the hill flocks extends to 10,500 acres of heather moorland, with this low productivity land dictating flock management to a significant extent. These flocks are managed through an extensive outdoor lambing system and achieve a rearing percentage of 112%.
“To some this might not sound like a spectacular level of productivity, but we are limited by what the ground is capable of producing, and a higher lambing percentage would mean keeping more hill ewes back on in-bye ground which is better used for the lowland flock,” explained Mr Williams.
He added: “Meanwhile, the lowland flock is lambed inside and grazed on a mix of set stocking and rotational grazing, with the intention to increase the proportion of ground rotationally grazed over the coming years.
“This flock is lambed from mid-March onwards with ewes fed a total mixed ration, while housed, based on grass silage and soya. Ewes go to grass soon after lambing and this year we’re looking at a transition strategy to maintain ewe feeding once at grass if required.”
Mr Williams highlighted that it isn’t practical to feed a total mixed ration (TMR) at grass and that they struggled last year with ewes adjusting from the TMR to grass and concentrates.
“As a result, we’re looking at options for a concentrate with a high soya inclusion rate to minimise disruption to the diet,” he said.
The first lambs from the lowland flock are sold finished off grass from the third week of June with no creep fed to any lambs. The team then continue to draw lambs regularly throughout the summer, getting as many away off grass as they can.
Lambs from the hill flock are weaned at the end of September and put onto grass and red clover. They are then finished off kale during the winter months, as grass growth and quality drops.
All lambs from Bowhill are sold to Dunbia for the Sainsbury’s supply chain, with a high percentage from both flocks meeting the required specification of E-R 2-3H. Some trial batches from the lowland flock have achieved 95% conformance with this specification, well above national conformance levels.
“Obviously the hill flocks don’t achieve quite that level of conformance, but we’re up at about 70% on pure Blackface lots and 90% on the Aberdale cross Blackface and I don’t think we can get much better than that to be honest,” said Mr Williams.
Financially, both the hill and lowland flocks at Bowhill perform strongly, generally sitting in the top third of Scottish flocks in QMS’ costings.
“Admittedly it is a bit of a mixed picture,” said Mr Williams. “Our hill output may not be as high as some other flocks, but we keep our costs in control, so score favourably.”
He added: “The lowland flock also usually sits between the average and top third of flocks. However, there has been a significant investment made in this flock in recent years, buying embryos for our own Aberfield and Aberdale flocks, so once those flocks are up and running, we should push up in to the top third quite quickly.”
An incentive scheme is operated with the shepherds on all flocks, encouraging them to take an active role in the business side of the flocks to help maintain performance. The whole team are encouraged to actively contribute to cost control and look at ways to improve the financial performance of the flock.
The team also receive a lambing bonus based on the flock’s overall financial success. If the flock performance is between the average and top third of flocks in the QMS costings, the team receive a bonus of 75p/lamb. However, if it is in the top third the bonus increases to £1.50 a lamb.
“Obviously, that can add up to quite a bit of money, so the more they contribute to the flocks’ success the better off they are,” Mr Williams explained.
One area where everyone at Bowhill is keen to maximise performance is in flock health, with the flocks tested over the last few years for Maedi Visna (MV), Johnes, OPA, CLA and Border disease.
Bowhill also makes use of faecal egg counts (FEC) to decide on when to dose for worms, with all lambs receiving a nematodirus drench early in the season and then wormed after that according to FEC results.
Mr Williams explained: “We used to drench routinely and would drench every lamb when they were weaned. Now, thanks to FEC we only drench those groups which need it. When weaning we used to dose about 7,000 lambs, this year that number would have been down between 400-500, so that’s a major saving in time and money, as well as ensuring we don’t encourage the development of anthelmintic resistance on the farm.”
The farm also quarantine treat any incoming stock with a group four or five anthelmintic alongside a moxidectin treatment for sheep scab as part of the farm’s strict biosecurity procedures. However, as the only stock that comes on farm is generally rams, which are sourced privately off farm, the team is confident that the flocks health status won’t be compromised.