28th November 2013

“Nature, Nurture and Nudity” Philosophy Paying Dividends on Borders Farm

Borders farmers Charley and Andrea Walker have developed a profitable sheep enterprise by following their “three Ns” principle – Nature, Nurture and Nudity.

This has resulted in a flock of low input, productive sheep which leave a healthy margin and a good quality of life for the couple and their two children at Barnside Farm, Abbey St Bathans, near Duns.

Barnside is one of the case study farms set to be showcased in the “Planning for Profit” roadshows taking place around the country in the coming weeks. Planning for Profit is an initiative aimed at assisting farmers to ensure their businesses are well-placed to operate profitably in the face of possible reduced support payments.

The initiative is supported by the Scottish Government’s Skills Development Scheme, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and NFU Scotland, and Charley Walker will be speaking at the first roadshow on Thursday 5th December at Dryburgh Abbey, Melrose

The 625 acre farm is all LFA, running from 600 to 900 feet above sea level and as well as the ewes, Charley and Andrea run 80 Welsh Black suckler cows.   A Nuffield scholar, Charley will tell guests at the roadshow how he maintains outputs in his 800 ewe enterprise while significantly reducing costs.

The business has grown to its current size from a start of 30 ewes grazed on a village football pitch in 1993.  Throughout the 1990s expansion of the flock continued but the breakthrough moment was reached when the tenancy at Barnside was taken on in 2001.  Since then substantial investments in fencing, water, livestock handling, liming and re-seeding have allowed the business to flourish.

The key factors in the success of the business have been the development of production systems and genetics that have vastly reduced the costs of production without significantly reducing productivity. The result of this has not only been increased margins but also an improved quality of family life.

This has been achieved by adopting management lessons learned from around the world during  Charley’s scholarship travels and by using a combination of UK, New Zealand and Canadian sheep genetics.

With no regular labour employed and no housing used for wintering or lambing, fixed costs are reduced while variable costs are kept low through reduced concentrate use, no wool related tasks and no fertiliser use.

The “nature” part of the “three Ns” comes from the Easycare genetics which have been used extensively in the flock for grading up Cheviot crosses and Romneys.  “It is essential ewes lamb and rear their progeny without assistance, they must be hardy and perform on grass,” said Mr Walker.

Any ewes which do not meet the above criteria are culled and their progeny not retained in the flock. The ewes are also wool-shedding so time and labour is saved, not only at shearing time but also in gathering, crutching and fly-spraying – hence the “nudity” part. Mr Walker observed: “We hardly touch the lambs from lambing to weaning.”

“Nurture” involves the carefully planned management of the flock and the pasture. Ryegrass and white clover mixtures are down for five to six years followed by a break-crop of turnips. Pastures are grazed rotationally to optimise grass digestibility and growth. A clean grazing system is also operated to prevent a build up of worms and the Walkers find that these two factors allow lambs to maximise their growth at grass.

Mr Walker admits that it is not the highest performing flock as far as producing prime lambs is concerned. He explained: “We have been focussing on maternal traits in order to get the ewes right and we have not used a terminal sire for years. However, we may do so again soon.”

The flock starts lambing in late April so the ewes get the benefit of spring grass in the last stages of pregnancy and after they lamb. The first of the lambs are sold at weaning in August with nearly all lambs away by the end of November. The lambs are sold through Farmstock where over 90% make “very good” or “good” specification. Weights average 17kg to 19kg deadweight and grades R3L.

“Profit can be measured in different ways,” said Mr Walker and the main benefit of the low input system is the time that it has freed up for both Charley and Andrea to spend time with their children, Tom (12) and Jessica (9). With labour costs usually accounting for one third of beef and sheep production, there are financial benefits too.

Find out more about the Walkers’ enterprise at the Planning for Profit roadshow at Dryburgh Abbey on Thursday 5th December. Booking is essential for these free roadshows and places are allocated on a first come, first served basis. To book your place contact Kirsty at QMS quoting “St Boswells” on 0131 472 4040 or email info@qmscotland.co.uk with your name, address, telephone number and quoting “St Boswells”.

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