At Fearn Farm in north-east Scotland, the first mob of ewes has finished lambing and been turned out into bright spring weather – at least until recently.
But after a lull of 10 days or so, with time for a quick clear out and wash down of the sheds, the second bunch of arrivals has begun.
By harvest last year, more than 700 finished lambs had left Fearn for Woodhead Bros at Turriff, achieving carcass grades of U and R, and fat classes of 3L and 4H. Lambs were sold in batches every Tuesday, with payment following by bank transfer three days later.
On average, last year’s crop of finished lambs achieved £72.80 a head after deductions, contributing about £50,000 to farm income by early summer.
It is this aspect of regular income, before cereals and straw sales are realised, that is influencing John Scott’s thinking on extending his sheep enterprise to include a later-lambing, self-sufficient flock.
“We started lambing the first mob on 23 February,” he says. “This bunch included AI’d Texel, Beltex and a handful of Charollais and synchronised commercial ewes, which were group-mated to Texel and Suffolk rams.”
Lambs from Easyram embryos from Shropshire breeder Robin Hulme also arrived at this time, giving the Scotts the basis of a New Zealand Suffolk flock, from which rams will be available later this year. Like the Texels, these will be reared on a mainly forage system with few cereals.
Mr Scott and his father James have bought two rams from the Hulmes at Ellesmere in Shropshire and 50 embryos.
“They were flushed one day and implanted the next up here. And these lambs look good. I’m not really a fan of embryo-transfer but it’s a means to an end.”
The New Zealand Suffolk genetics are also revealing their influence in improved lamb vigour. “These lambs are very quick to get up and suck. I went into the shed one morning at about 5am, after the night lamber had left at 4am, and I had to run to catch up with a lamb that can’t have been born more than 30 minutes before.”
The early-lambing mob also allowed Mr Scott and his father to try for one more crop of lambs from borderline cull ewes. “The whole plan is to get them in-lamb early, in one group so that they can be given a little extra TLC, and get lambs on the ground quickly and then finished and gone, with the ewes following while the ewe price is still strong.”
With all his pedigree sheep lambed, and the business of identifying and culling cast ewes already taken care of, John aims to lamb the rest of his commercial sheep in two blocks through the rest of the spring.
The second mob of ewes, starting to lamb now, are 650 mainly commercial types, with 80 hoggs due to lamb, too. “We gave them 21 days with the rams, bearing in mind that we have a May-lambing flock this year too. Anything not in oestrus would get a second chance with the ram later on.”
The final mob of 200 ewes and 180 hoggs will lamb later in May. “Most of these sheep carry Easycare genetics. They were all run with Easycare rams for the first cycle, before the rams being removed from the hoggs, and the two rams from Robin Hulme introduced.”
The last part of the flock will lamb in May and he is relying on these ewes lambing outdoors, relatively independently.
These easy-care genetics are part of Mr Scott’s plan to develop a sheep system which allows the farm to carry more ewes over a longer period without adding pressure on management and shed space at peak times.
“I know a lot of people aren’t keen on the term ‘easy-care’, but to increase numbers on a May-lambing system, I need a much less hands-on type of sheep.
“And with the right grassland and health management, I don’t foresee too many difficulties.”
Many hands make light work, and Mr Scott and his father have had plenty of excellent help with the first batch of ewes. “We’ve had a great team here for the past few weeks – Tod Rowland, Sophie Pinkney and Jimmy Sutherland are all over from New Zealand – and with myself and dad we’ve had Ray Bremner, who helps us with calving, at nights.”
Mr Rowland and Ms Pinkney have moved on to other jobs in the Borders, but Mr Scott is looking forward to new recruits Anna Wood and German vet student Anya joining them soon.
“We had about 10 days break between the first and second mobs and it gave us a good chance to get all the sheds cleared out and disinfected. It’s not something we would normally manage to do but we had the people here, and it does give you a real boost to see the shed empty with ewes and lambs turned out. But the wind comes out of your sails just as quickly when you fill it up again with the next lot.”
While Mr Scott says some might think he has had too many staff for the 300 ewes he’s had to lamb so far, it has meant a great deal of progress elsewhere, on tasks that would normally have just had to wait. “Jimmy and Tod have spent a lot of time fencing. It’s been a bit of a project to try to get mains electric fencing around the whole farm, and we wouldn’t have been able to get on with that without them.
“Also, with lambs worth £75, it’s really worth having people around who can prevent you losing even a few.”
Lambs from the early batch of ewes will be finished by early- to mid-May – the first draft in a programme that will continue until late autumn. Starting to sell lambs from mid-May will provide a welcome cashflow boost, too. “But in the past, there does seem to have been a noticeable lift in price towards mid-May, so I’m not going to rush them,” says Mr Scott.
“We could keep some of the May-born lambs back over Christmas and try to sell them into the early spring market but by then we’d be into lambing the next lot and I wouldn’t want to be trying to sell lambs and deal with lambing other sheep.”
The first batch of lambs is already on a Harbro creep pellet and has had a coccidiosis protection treatment.
Mr Scott and his father are also about to begin calving Fearn’s Shorthorn and Angus sucklers, but with the extra help in the lambing shed and Mr Bremner’s services, Mr Scott anticipates few problems. “We have about 100 cows to calve in total; 30 pedigree Shorthorns, 10 Angus cows and 60 commercials, all in-calf to Angus, Shorthorn or Simmental bulls.”
Fearn Farm will play host to Shorthorn breeders and enthusiasts from all over the UK on 14 May, with a judging workshop and discussion session for breeders in the morning.
Specialists from Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Agricultural College will also review the commercial side of the operation.
The afternoon is open to all interested parties, not just Shorthorn breeders, says Mr Scott.
Farm facts: FEARN FARM, Tain, Easter-Ross
* Fearn Farm, near Tain, Easter-Ross, a 410ha (1015-acre) unit owned by J Scott & Partners. The family partners are John Scott, his wife Fiona and his mother and father, Janet and James
* Land is Grade 2 and 3, lying about 50ft above sea level and ranging from sandy to clay
* There is 263ha (650 acres) of grass and 194ha (480 acres) of arable, mostly spring barley, with 20ha (50 acres) let for potatoes. Most arable cultivation and harvest work is carried out by contractors
* Fearn runs 100 suckler cows (a commercial herd plus 30 pedigree Shorthorns and 10 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cows) plus a 1250-ewe commercial flock (70 pure Texels and 30 pure Beltex ewes) and 300 hoggs
Visit Fearn’s website.