Changing direction is never easy, least of all when your family has a 200-year tradition of sheep farming in Scotland. But that’s exactly what Andrew Elliot has done on his 1500 acres of organic upland grass near Galashiels in the Scottish Borders.
“Nothing was sacrosanct, everything had to be reviewed,” he says of a period of assessment which led to the changes he is continuing to implement within the business.
The key, he believes, was simplification and wool-shedding sheep the solution.
“It was a real drudge for us going round twice a day looking at the stock – particularly stock getting stuck on their backs.”
Having tried a number of breeds, Mr Elliot took a different approach some eight years ago.
Using the North Country Cheviot genetics he already had at another family farm in north-west Sutherland, Mr Elliot introduced one cross of Easycares to create what he refers to as 50% wool-shedding “Chevease”.
“We did one cross only as I wanted to retain as much of the Cheviot as possible, he explains. “We then split them into five families to avoid in-breeding.”
The resulting progeny are lambed outdoors on a low labour input system. “I think there’s going to be a swing towards this – not castrating or tailing,” Mr Elliot says.
A recorded, but unregistered, Suffolk flock is also run on the farm, the Suffolk tups being used across problem Chevease ewes creating “a hardy flock requiring less assistance to suckle or lamb”.
Grassland management is another factor in Mr Elliot’s success. “People say they are a sheep or beef farmer. I say no, I am a grass farmer.
“We’ve hung more than 180 gates in two years and put up 20,000m of fencing in the past seven. You cannot improve your grazing unless you control it.”
Grassland output, he says, is maximised in a “sustainable, low-cost manner, over-seeding and re-seeding with mixtures containing high sugar ryegrasses and small-leaved clovers following soil analysis”.
Lambing is later in the season to coincide with grass growth and so that the sheep require less winter feed.
Health plans provide a useful management tool providing an “annual template” to help cover strategic annual treatments for parasites as well as vaccinations and mineral supplements.
Biosecurity is important too, Mr Elliot explains. “We ensure existing boundary fences are stock proof and that the few purchased stock are isolated for three weeks.”
Valuing the staff is a high priority, and empowering them to make key decisions has been an important ingredient. Houses have been renovated for his employees and those that are not used directly for the business are let out, helping create an alternative income source.
Marketing is a mixture of repeat business from other farmers buying breeding Chevease stock built up on a growing reputation, with feeding lambs sold deadweight through Scott Country Lamb Ltd, a farmers’ marketing co-operative of which Mr Elliot is a director.
Being a responsible custodian of the land he farms means Mr Elliot has entered into a number of management agreements generating not only aesthetic reward, but important income too.
And with his active involvement in a number of key Scottish farming organisations, including a directorship of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society, it’s clear Mr Elliot is giving up valuable time to the wider benefit of Scottish agriculture for which he believes there is a strong future.
- Two mixed organic upland farms at Clovenfords, Galsheils
- Nearly 1500 acres organic grazing plus 100 acres spring barley and 35 acres turnips
- 1200 ewes mainly North Country Cheviot x Easycare creating 50% wool-shedding “Chevease” flock, alongside recorded Suffolks
- Land rising from 650ft to 1650ft
- Participation in Countryside Premium Scheme and Rural Stewardship Scheme
- Other farms run as separate businesses in Berwickshire, NW Sutherland and East Lothian
What the judges liked:
- Charisma and strong team management. Mr Elliot brings pleasure to the job of sheep farming
- Breeding programme targeted at the farm and system. Preparedness to move away from breed traditions
- Technical excellence in stock and grassland management