Ewen Campbell, SRUC Kirkton & Auchtertyre farms manager
THE SHORT days and long nights are a sign that tupping time is fast approaching - when we mate the ewes with the rams.
This year will be a bit different from the past four years, since we are changing the sheep management systems we have been testing on our Kirkton flock. For the past four years, we have had a livestock project funded by the Scottish Government, looking at three different sheep genotypes (Scottish Blackface selection line with high estimated breeding values (EBVs); Scottish Blackface control line with average EBVs; and the Welsh Lleyn breed). In the project, the groups will be managed in two different systems - one conventional, using traditional approach to sheep management; the other making more use of automated systems linking to the electronic identification (EID) tags on the sheep.
In this next phase, and based on the findings from this four year study, the sheep systems will be changed to put a focus on investigating two contrasting systems.
These two systems, hill grazing vs park grazing, will be different in terms of their grazing resource use, each making more or less use of in bye, semi-improved and hill grazings, as well as more or less use of home- grown or bought-in feeds. To accommodate the grazing resources of this new systems study, our Kirkton flock will be split into two groups, each containing the three existing genotypes from the original flock (Scottish Blackface selection, Scottish Blackface control and Lleyn). Both systems will incorporate the best practice precision livestock farming approaches that we have investigated and evaluated in the previous research project and highlighted in previous articles.
Sorting the ewes into different mating groups, and measuring and monitoring the grass height in our pastures are just two of the jobs taking place at present.
To measure the grass height, we used the Quality Meat Scotland sward stick approach. It consists of a simple card system which is in two parts, both small enough to fit into my back pocket. Our aim is to ensure that the grass is at its optimum grazing length for sheep (4cm to 8cm). There is also a scale with information on how the kilograms of dry matter per hectare of grass vary with sward height. However, unless the weather stays unusually mild, it is unlikely that there will be much grass to measure with all the hungry mouths that are currently eating it.
Changing the Kirkton systems has allowed us to move some of our spare young Blackface ewes on to an area of Auchtertyre known as the Corrie. This piece of land has not been grazed for nearly 10 years and we are keen to reintroduce grazing as part of our overall increase in grazing management across the farms as a whole. In restocking this area, which can be steep in places with lots of rough vegetation, we are going to use some additional breeds of tups to instil even more hardiness into the lambs. So in addition to our Blackface rams we are also going to use a Swaledale and two Black Welsh Mountain rams. The latter breed has performed very well on an upland farm on a former opencast mining site in Ayrshire and I’m keen to see how the cross lambs do up here in the Highlands.
We also had more visitors on the farm. On Sunday November 15, we hosted a visit by some Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs (SAYFC) members on their way home after their annual weekend meeting in Oban. They were young farmers from the east region who, despite the wet weather, enjoyed hearing about the research we are doing here. Colleagues were onhands to demonstrate how our latest sheep handling system is working.
All in all, another busy month for us.