Hill flock productivity has significantly improved at the Peebles monitor farm since Ed and Kate Rowell of Hundleshope hosted their first monitor farm meeting in November 2012.
Hundleshope, a 1,797acre (727 ha) unit, located just south of Peebles, is one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland. The majority of the farm (approximately 1,450 acres) is heather hill, peaking at 2,200 feet.
A flock of 350 Scottish Blackfaces range over the hill ground, with 430 home-bred Scotch Mules and Texel cross Mule ewes for prime lamb production, plus 170 hoggs, kept on the lower ground.
The cattle enterprise is based on an out-wintered herd of 70 breeding females. Just under 40 acres of spring barley is grown, with grain and straw used on-farm.
Improving productivity of the Blackface flock was one of the first projects the Rowells asked the monitor farm community group to help them with.
“The number of lambs being born was so low that we were keeping every ewe lamb, and even then, we still had to buy in additional ewe lambs just to maintain numbers,” recalled Mrs Rowell.
In 2010 the hill ewes had scanned at 67%. By 2013 this had improved to 94%. The 2014 scanning of 113%, yielding 400 lambs at marking, including 150 ewe lambs, was “the best we can recall,” according to Mrs Rowell, whose father John Brown had been the previous tenant at Hundleshope.
The Rowells had acted upon most of the community group recommendations, which included weaning lambs earlier, dosing for liver fluke, feeding high energy rolls to ewes at tupping time and using EID to identify and cull empty ewes.
An additional recommendation, which had met with a “mixed” reaction from the Rowells, had been to purchase Performance Recorded tups with good Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for maternal traits.
“I was sceptical,” confessed Mr Rowell, “even though we’d previously selected terminal sire tups on their EBVs for the cross-bred ewes.”
Mrs Rowell was more enthusiastic and in August 2013, three Scottish Blackface shearlings from the same breeder, all born in April 2012 and all with well above breed average EBVs for maternal traits, arrived at Hundleshope.
“I would never have bought them had I been selecting by eye,” said Mr Rowell. “But even though it’s too soon to tell whether or not their daughters have the maternal traits to match their EBVs, already the weaning weights of their progeny (weaned 9th September 2014, started lambing mid-May), match the EBVs, which is encouraging.”
Mrs Rowell added: “we weighed all the lambs at weaning, and with the help of EID were able to identify which lambs were sired by which tups. The lambs by the tup with the lowest EBVs for Mature Size, Scan Weight and Muscle Depth averaged 23.38 kgs, while the lambs by the other two tups averaged 24.29 kgs and 25.16 kgs.
“Thanks to Electronically Identifying the Blackface flock, we’ll be able to record which lambs are from which ewes, and in time build up a history for each ewe lamb considered as a replacement.
“But for now, we’re enjoying the luxury of having more ewe lambs than we need, to select replacements from. Using the weaning weights as a guide, we’ll initially discount the bottom 15%, and then check over the remaining 85% for physical defects. And while by doing this, we will probably be rejecting twin ewe lambs, we’re not hoping for more than one lamb per ewe, our hill is too challenging for us to aim for large numbers of twin-bearing ewes.
“Before, by having to keep all our ewe lambs, regardless of how good they were, or how productive their dams were, we were aware that we were probably taking the quality of the flock downwards. But now – by being able to be selective with our ewe lamb replacements, along with culling empty ewes, which in the past may have had a lamb every other year, if we were lucky, we feel that we’re taking forward steps to improving the productivity and lifting the quality of the hill flock, which will be ongoing with each year’s intake!”
In 2016 the first female crop of the Performance Recorded Blackface tups, born in 2014, will lamb to Bluefaced Leicester X Texel tups.
“We lambed Blackie gimmers to Blackie tups last year,” recalled Mr Rowell, “and the horns on some of the tup lambs caused some serious lambing problems.”
He added: “For their second lambing the young Blackie ewes will go to Blackface tups, which will mean that we’ll need to buy some new tups.”
“With good EBVs for maternal traits!” said Mrs Rowell. “We plan to continue to focus on selecting Blackface tups with good figures for maternal traits until we hit a situation where the progeny are difficult to finish, if we ever do!”
The next Peebles monitor farm meeting will be in May. For more information about this monitor farm and to view meeting reports click here