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By Ewen Campbell, SRUC’s Kirkton and Auchtertyre research farms manager.
The days are getting a bit longer now, even if the temperature is still low, and although the weather has been changeable the stock generally have wintered well.
The ewes have just been ultrasound pregnancy scanned and the results are encouraging. The ewes from our research flock (400 Scottish Blackfaces and 200 Lleyns) were roughly 10 per cent up on last year and had less barren than in previous years.
The Scottish Blackface ewes scanned at 137 per cent (barren rate eigh tper cent), while the Lleyn ewes scanned at 144 per cent (barren rate six per cent). These barren rates are still a bit high in comparison to commercial flocks where you would expect less than five per cent but this is partly because they are a research flock and as such are more challenged.
The ewes from our high hill flocks (Auchtertyre and Corrie) were a struggle to get in due to the snow but were in good condition for the time of year. The Auchtertyre ewes scanned out at 108 per cent, with a barren rate of 14 per cent.
This barren rate is a bit high, and we found that the gimmers (ewes who were put to the tup for the first time) had a particularly high barren percentage, dragging the rest of the flock down. So, we will have to try to find out what may have been the cause of this.
The Corrie ewes were mated with the Black Welsh mountain and Swaledale tups, and they scanned out at 120 per cent (six per cent barren). In contrast to Auchtertyre, the Corrie gimmers did well at 114 per cent with only five per cent barren.
Although the mild winter will have played its part, these results also reflect our increased emphasis on our inbye grassland management and especially ensuring that we still had grass available in the run-up to tupping time last November.
All in all the results are very encouraging and I am pleased with what we are seeing this year.
Speaking of grassland, we just held another meeting of our Kirkton Grassland Group. A small group of farmers and consultants came to hear about the progress in our grassland management. The focus this time around was on soil and soil structure and we spent a good few hours out in the fields testing soil compaction and digging soil pits to see what was going on under the sward.
We had some very interesting discussions, particularly about how best to reseed one of our fields where the soil is especially shallow, and also about what may have caused rushes to start appearing in the middle of one of the fields reseeded four years ago.
This has given me plenty of food for thought and emphasised to everyone present that getting grassland management right can be a complex process.
The cows are also doing well, and calving is in full swing. So far, we’ve had 10 calves from our shorthorn bull, seven bulls and three heifers. Although mainly black, they are a variety of colours including red, speckled and we even have a pure white one.
We have also just installed a remote-control calving camera in the shed, which means we now have ‘eyes’ on the cattle and sheep pens 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This will allow us to see and sort out any calving or lambing problems in the middle of the night much earlier than might otherwise have been the case. The camera can be accessed from our phones as well as our computers and this is proving to be very helpful.
Finally, we have had some visitors last week. Students from Harper Adams (down in England) have had their annual visit to the farm. Around 25 students and their teachers came to see our handling facilities, hearing about our research projects relating to breeding and the use of electronic tagging (EID) for sheep management.
They were in luck as we were weighing the ewes post-scanning to put them in their respective feeding groups. The students were able to have a proper hands-on experience.
We also managed to go up the hill in-between two sleety showers. We talked about sheep systems history in Scotland, biodiversity and other land-uses (we even mentioned the nearby gold mine), finishing with a tour of our wigwams, to talk about on-farm diversification.
Quite a busy day!