Farming on the north coast of Scotland is hard, so anything that makes life easier and saves time and money is a bonus. One farmer who has taken advantage of technology to his own and his flock’s benefit is Donald Macdonald of Taldale near Thurso.
Taldale is a very exposed, wet farm that has to cope with very strong winds all year round, so Mr Macdonald is always on the lookout for new concepts which will make his life easier and save money. For that reason, he enjoys attending the Sutherland Monitor Farm meetings at Clynelish, Brora, and even hosted one of the meetings earlier this year.
A new entrant farmer in 1999, Mr Macdonald has gradually increased his farm size to just under 240 hectares on which he runs 600 Cheviot and cross ewes and 250 ewe hoggs. His aim is not necessarily to increase ewe numbers but to have 600 productive ewes producing lambs to the correct market specification. He keeps 400 Cheviots pure and crosses the rest with a New Zealand Suffolk, the progeny of which are crossed with the Beltex.
He said: “I was one of the first in Scotland to buy into the New Zealand Suffolk genetics and I have been very impressed with their prolificacy and libido. One shearling will serve 150 ewes and the resulting cross ewe has a good, thick coat, which helps in this area.”
He has improved his lambing percentage over the years and now scans at over 170% and achieves 156% at weaning, thanks to blood testing the ewes six weeks before tupping to identify any mineral or trace element deficiencies. He also soil samples and has the unusual approach of combining the two results and adding the required minerals to his fertiliser programme instead of treating the sheep.
He said: “Why do we drench sheep and put up with poor quality grass and silage, when we can marry the two together and solve both problems at once.”
The key to his winter feeding is making good silage. He makes around 350 bales per year and has started using Silostop bale wrap which claims to prevent any oxygen entering the bales. Mr Macdonald first saw it on a visit to AgriScot and has found it to be an excellent product.
He said: “We were losing as many as eight to 10 ewes a year with listeria, which was very frustrating, especially as it usually happened just before lambing. Since I started using Silostop, I have not lost a single ewe to the disease.”
Although it costs about £85 per roll compared to £56 to £60 for normal bale wrap, Donald finds it worth it as there is absolutely no leakage, waste or bad bales and the silage is so much better.
He pointed out: “Why spend a lot of time and money analysing soil, fertilising, cutting and chopping grass, then baling it in a sub-standard wrap?”
Because of the ferocious wind in Caithness, Mr Macdonald wraps his bales with eight layers. He uses a double wrapper and has Silostop on one spool and normal bale wrap on the other so each bale is completely sealed and airtight. This extra two layers adds about £1.15 onto the cost of a bale but the quality of the silage is excellent, and the bales only lose two to three per cent of their weight over the winter.
Because the silage quality is good, the ewes are only fed silage and molasses over the winter with twins fed a small amount of concentrates from two weeks before lambing and triplets a little bit longer.
Another product Mr Macdonald has used to great effect on the farm is ClipEx fencing. This system, based on galvanised steel posts and clip-on Rylock fencing was founded in Australia and comes with a 30 year guarantee.
He said: “I started with about 150m three years ago and liked it, so I put up another 1,100m in the spring and plan to replace a further 1,000m of fencing by the end of the year. It is very cost-effective compared to wooden posts, which only last 10 to 12 years.”
He added: “It is a very good, strong fence, which requires very little maintenance. We paid a contractor to erect it and it worked out cheaper to erect than a traditional fence even with concrete pillars and a heavier post every four meters.”
Mr Macdonald also has a landscape gardening business with five staff and has one full-time worker, Ronald Bain, who works in both businesses, so he is always looking for ideas to save time. Five years ago he invested in a Racewell sheep handling system with weigh crate and auto-shedder. The system was demonstrated at a recent Monitor Farm meeting held at Taldale.
It was his wife, and partner in the farm business, Fiona, who suggested putting a roof on the fank at the same time to make the whole process of sorting sheep a bit more pleasurable.
Mr Macdonald said: “The Racewell system is so quick and easy, I can weigh and shed 600 lambs an hour by myself and we can put the whole ewe flock through the race, checking feet and udders in just over an hour.”
Some of the lambs are sold store with the remainder finished and all sold at Dingwall. Donald reckons there is nothing better than a Beltex cross leg of lamb.