Lambing and grassland to the fore at research farms

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We are in the middle of lambing here at Kirkton and Auchtertyre, as I’m sure are most of the farms in the West Highlands.

While the weather at the start was changeable, this last week has been glorious. Lambing is never easy but the good winter and early spring have created conditions which are about as good as it gets. We have plenty of grass for the time of year and the ewes are in good condition. This means they have plenty of milk for their lambs and are very motherly.

In our Kirkton research flock, three-quarters of the ewes lambed in the first 16 days. The good weather and condition of the ewes at mating time is really showing up now with good healthy looking lambs which seem a little heavier than normal. The high hill flock (Auchtertyre), which started lambing a week behind Kirkton, has also gone well. In our Kirkton flock, we still put our ewes carrying twins indoors at night, to give them extra shelter and supervision, whilst the single-bearing ewes are lambing on our rough parks.

The dry spell has also allowed us to get on with some grassland work. Manure and fertiliser have been spread on the flat fields and we have harrowed some of the older grass to remove the dead vegetation and let the air into the roots of the growing plants. If all goes to plan, the ground should be dry enough to start ploughing a field for re-seeding next week.

Ping Zhou, the PhD student who has been using our Kirkton sheep data for the past two years, is now collecting her final year’s worth of data. She is still looking at colostrum quality of the twins-bearing ewes, as well as carrying out post-mortems on any lamb that died within a week of birth. By the end of this lambing season, she will have enough information to start writing up her thesis.

The farm staff and the technicians here are being rushed off their feet with lambing, but my research colleagues have also been busy. Despite all the political shenanigans going on in the background, researchers across Europe are still keen to work closely with us. To this end, we have been successful in two new EU projects, both funded under the European Research Area Network (ERA-NET) framework, with our funding being underpinned by Defra.

The first project, SusSheP, is being led by the University of Limerick in Ireland, with Irish partners from Teagasc and Sheep Ireland, French partners from INRA (National Institute for Agronomy Research), Norwegian partners from the Norwegian Association of Sheep and Goat Breeders and from the Norwegian University of Life Science, as well as the UK Maternal Sheep Group and Claire Morgan-Davies and Nicola Lambe here at SRUC Kirkton.

The aim of the project is to look at increasing the sustainability and profitability of European sheep production. There are three main strands to this three-year project.

The first one is to look at ewe longevity and how to record such traits on farm. We will use existing data and that’s where we at Kirkton are well-placed, since we have been flock recording for a while.

The second one relates to labour and carbon hoofprint. We will record labour and carbon efficiency on farms in the UK, Ireland, France and Norway, and again, this will link well with some of the existing research we are already conducting here. All these days with me traipsing with a GoPro around my neck a couple of years back have not been in vain! The final strand is to do with AI and cervical sperm transport, especially in sheep dairy breeds.

Although we do not use AI extensively here in this country, it will be interesting to understand issues of uptake and fertility. The first meeting relating to this project was held in Limerick at the end of April and it was another good occasion to network and compare sheep farming systems across Europe.

The second three-year project, called Animal Future, is being led by the French INRA with partners from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, as well as Davy McCracken and the team here at Kirkton and SRUC economists in Edinburgh. The main focus of this project is to design strategies for assessing and enhancing the sustainability of animal production systems. We will be conducting case studies of hill sheep systems here in Scotland to identify opportunities to improve sustainability and ways to address any constraints to doing that.

So here at Kirkton and Auchtertyre we are going to stay closely connected to Europe for some time to come. And with the Auld Alliance in particular continuing to be very strong it looks like I’ll have to brush up on my French. Au revoir for now.