Kirkton and Auchtertyre farms start year on a high

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Ewen Campbell, SRUC’s Kirkton and Auchtertyre farms manager

I know we are a bit late in getting going, but it is good to be able to start this year’s column with a few positive thoughts.

Calving has just got going and so far we have eight heifer calves and one bull calf. A real bonus as they are by the Shorthorn bull and we are looking for female calves.

The cows are looking well on the high quality haylage we made last summer. When the analysis came back, some of it was as high as 80 per cent Dry Matter. In comparison, the hay we bought in and analysed from Stirling was 82 per cent. Therefore there is almost three times the feeding in each haylage bale that there would be in a wet bale of silage and it is great to get to this time of year and see that there is still a substantial stack left.

I know I should not tempt fate, but it looks like this winter will be less stressful than the last one. We have plenty of forage, there has been very little snow and most of the ewes are in good condition.

We just finished pregnancy scanning the ewes in our Kirkton flock, and I am very pleased with the results. Overall, the scanning percentage is 132 per cent, with 7 per cent barren. This barren percentage would be high for a commercial flock, but because of single sire mating groups and the high intervention that our research requires, I think it is acceptable.

We have three lines of animals in our research flock. The control line, which is composed of Scottish Blackface ewes with average genetic index value, scanned at 126 per cent, the selection line, which is made up of Scottish Blackface ewes with higher genetic index, scanned at 138 per cent and the Lleyn ewes scanned at 132 per cent.

Farmers have been a bit sceptical about the use of EBV index values, but there is no doubt that they work, as the above figures confirm. For example, if you used the above high index rams on a 1,000 ewe flock, this would potentially equate to 120 extra lambs. Next week, we are scanning our high hill flock at Auchtertyre, so it will be interesting to see how they do.

The male lambs from last year were finished in the sheds at Kirkton and Auchtertyre for slaughter. One group has been used at Kirkton to trial our latest kit that keeps track of their feeding habits and individual feed intake. The kit is composed of feeding bins that measure how much and how often the lamb eats, and is working with the EID tag of the animal to record this information at the individual animal level.

We had a very successful workshop about this on the February 13, when 37 delegates from research, advisory, industry and farming came to Kirkton to discuss ways to measure feed efficiency in sheep and were shown the installation.

Delegates spent the morning on the farm, with demonstration of the kit. The afternoon was spent indoors, at the Crianlarich Hotel, where we had interesting discussions and brainstorming as to how such kit can help the Scottish sheep industry. It was very interesting to hear ideas from different stakeholders. The feedback suggested that use of this kit within national breeding programmes was considered one of the best ways to make use of the data that could be collected. The workshop allowed us to develop a network of people interested in sheep feed efficiency, to take some of these ideas forward.

Finally, we are still busy with visitors to the farm, keen to see how the work we are doing is relevant to hill farming and upland issues in general. The latest visitors were final year agricultural students from Harper Adams University, in Shropshire. The 13 students and their two lecturers spent the morning with us, being told about the precision livestock farming and sheep systems and genetics research we do here, as well as information about the environment and biodiversity in the hills.

They were also very interested by the gold mine in Tyndrum, but some were surprised by the very wet weather we have in Scotland, and more particularly here at Kirkton. It is always nice to discuss the work that we do here at Kirkton with the potential next generation of livestock farmers.