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BUILDING A SHEEP ENTERPRISE THAT IS CAPABLE OF SURVIVING WHATEVER IS THROWN AT US IN  THE FUTURE

With kind permission of the Forsyth family, Dumfriesshire

Maximising kilos of lamb per acre from a low input unit is the way to go for Dumfriesshire producer, Colin Forsyth. “I believe I’m certainly heading in the right direction building a sheep enterprise that is capable of surviving whatever is thrown at us in future,” he says from Bennan, Thornhill, base to his split flock amounting to 2,000 ewes and an 85 cow suckler herd run on 600 acres of hill and 1,000 acres upland.

“We are running a closed, outdoor lambing flock that’s low input and virtually dependent on grass and forage crops. It has to produce quality lambs with good tight skins and we firmly believe we’ve found the answer in a breeding programme featuring a three-way cross - the Abertex, Aberfield SR and Lleyn. Hybrid vigour and simplicity are key.

“The flock is scanning an average 170% which is phenomenal for this type of hill/upland unit, and approximately 80% of lambs are hitting 19kg and within the U, R spec. Compared with our former purebred flock, that hybrid vigour is enabling us to achieve between 10% and 15% more lambs - the difference between profit and loss and up to 20% more within spec,” explains Colin who manages the unit with one shepherd/stockman, Bryan McLellan and casual labour when required. “What’s more, we are now producing a far better lamb without any extra work.” 

Colin made some significant changes to what was a more traditional sheep enterprise when he returned to the family farm nearly two decades ago. His father, Sandy a successful first generation farmer had built up the business and whilst he says the sheep system was fit for purpose at the time, it was Colin’s 12 months experience in New Zealand following university, that was the game changer. “The main message I brought home was the importance of a closed flock, and unless we acted, then our sheep enterprise wasn’t going anywhere. Whatever breed I choose, then I realised that I was only going to make any real genetic progress if we stopped buying in replacements.” 

He set out on the journey developing a pure Lleyn flock. “Whilst it was working in terms of prolificacy, performance was starting to drop - we were looking for more growth and better carcase quality. Attempting to redress the balance we looked into introducing a Continental tup however we did not want to compromise the ability to lamb outdoors. 

“We had read about Innovis performance recorded tups and seven years ago decided the Abertex meat sire offering a combination of maternal and carcase traits to be the perfect fit. In addition, all Innovis rams are accompanied by very high health status which is huge - they are all screened for the five main iceberg diseases, quarantine dosed and MOT’d, so I know they are completely safe. Being grass fed and naturally reared, I’m also finding they’ve longevity with the ability to last for five to six years. 

“Whilst this breeding programme was a win, win - it allowed us to produce a superior lamb without making concessions to lambing ease and scanning percentage, things didn’t stop there,” he says. “Two years ago, we introduced a third line, the Aberfield SR, a maternal sire bred off grass which has been selected for maternal traits as well as growth and muscling. In turn, I’ve found myself breeding our own composite and this three-way cross is achieving the hybrid vigour I firmly believe in, it’s helping us to push the boundaries on his unit which goes to 1,300’. 

Apart from improved lamb performance, Colin says he is able to work the flock hard on a rotational grazing system. “After 14 to 15 week weaning, we introduce the ewes to mobs of 300, and move them on to a fresh bite every second day. Tups are run in a ratio of one to 80 ewes, and an average 80% lamb within the first three weeks. This season just 1% of the flock scanned empty. 

“During lambing, yes we do check four times a day, however these hybrid ewes get on with the job, and they do look after themselves and their lively lambs from the word go. I’m a great believer in milk, and these ewes supply.” 

Whilst 520 ewe lambs are annually retained as replacements and a further 200 sold as ewe lambs the rest of the crop is finished for Tesco under a Tesco Cost of Production (COP) scheme. “COP is extra work, however it keeps us on top of the game and is certainly worth it in enabling us to make business decisions - we can budget ahead and fix targets. In turn that makes for easier management, we no longer need to play the home market and it brings security from global marketplace fluctuations.” 

Colin makes the first draw at 16 weeks, after which marketing is staggered through to the end of the year on a mix of grazed grass and forage crops - forage rape, hybrid kale and stubble turnips. 

He adds: “There’s no doubt about it, we will need to be as efficient as possible going forward if we’re to farm with reduced payments and continue to manage a sustainable, profitable unit. We believe our Abertex, Aberfield SR and Lleyn, hybrid breeding programme will enable us to continue to make genetic progress, placing us well in the game to survive.”

IF YOU WOULD LIKE MORE INFORMATION ABOUT ANY OF THE BREEDS USED HERE OR OUR UPCOMING SALES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND, CONTACT KARYN ON 07854 759660

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Email: enquiries@innovis.org.uk or complete our contact form

Innovis Ltd, Peithyll, Capel Dewi. Aberystwyth, Wales, UK SY23 3HU.

Tel.: 01970 828236

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