Signs of spring at last after extreme winter

Sheep feeding intake trial has help to collect valuable data, giving insights into the variation in feeding behaviour.

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Ewen Campbell, SRUC’s Kirkton and Auchtertyre research farms manager

I don’t like to tempt fate, but it looks like the temperature is finally going to rise and, with a bit of luck, spring will be just round the corner.

As I explained in last month’s article, this has been an extreme winter for livestock to cope with and it looks like the press and the politicians are finally catching on to just how desperate the situation is for some farmers.

Despite what has been thrown at us, we managed to gather the ewes for their pre-lambing vaccination.

Given some of the poor results we have had at scanning, we have also taken blood samples from some of our ewes, to check their metabolic status. Particularly, we were looking at magnesium, copper, urea, albumin and beta hydroxybutyrate (BOHB) – all compounds in the blood that give an indication of the animal’s nutritional status. That should help us understand which ewes had issues or not.

Calving has been going well, with 21 calves from 21 cows with three still to calf. We have also had our first calf from our Highland cows and he’s a real character with an enviable turn of speed.

I also wanted to tell you more about some recent activity we have had on the farm.

Our SRUC colleagues in Edinburgh received government funding last year from the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) to purchase portable equipment that can tell us more about feed efficiency in sheep. The equipment is for recording feed and water intake of individual sheep, alongside changes in their live weight, using EID technology.

We have been testing it here at Kirkton with some of our Auchtertyre finishing lambs in the shed. The kit arrived mid-January and was set up with help from BioControl, the Norwegian company which designed it.

After some trial and error, including water pipes and feed nuts freezing (when the first wave of snow and ice hit us!), we got it working. We have collected valuable data, giving us insights into the variation in feeding behaviour, and feed and water intake between sheep.

We hope to use this system in several future sheep trials at SRUC, to investigate the genetics of feed efficiency, as well as for finishing feeding trials. This pilot trial has certainly attracted a lot of attention from all our visitors since January. Another interesting example of how technology can be adapted to, and useful for, hill farms.

We also had our first grassland group meeting of the year here on the farms, organised by Robin Mair from Stirling SAC Consulting. Eight people attended, and we concentrated our discussions on bracken control and in particular how we are going to manage the areas of bracken we sprayed last year.

We discussed various ideas including the use of cattle grazing to break up the bracken litter; the application of lime and fertilizer to encourage grass growth; and the introduction of clover and grass seed. We also had a look at our recently reseeded inbye fields and discussed future management.

That’s it until next time, when lambing will be upon us, with, I hope, some nicer weather in store for us.