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Future proofing for a hard or soft Brexit

2019, Aberblack, Abermax, Highlander

by Patsy Hunter, Business & Technical Editor (Scottish Farmer)

Maximising kilos of lamb solely from home produced forage is the way to go for Borders producer, Kevin Stewart.

“It’s the only means of future proofing the flock. We need to be as efficient as possible, whether we get a hard or soft Brexit, and we believe our enterprise is well down the road,” said Kevin who is based at Sharpitlaw, Kelso, but also farms at Gattonside Mains, Springhall, and has a share arrangement at Lintonburnfoot.

“Pure Highlander wethers together with Aberfield and Aberblack cross Highlander lambs are averaging 19.6kg deadweight with 95% grading within the preferred specification and the entire crop is finished by Christmas, they are rotationally grazed before moving on to stubble turnips,” he added.

“We also sell 800 breeding females each year to commercial producers seeking more kilos and a much easier life – pure Highlanders surplus to replacement requirements and Aberfield cross Highlander ewe lambs.

Kevin added: “In fact, we’ve already implemented our own pre-Brexit steps; we’ve merged the 1750 ewes from two lambing flocks in to one, all lambing to outdoors in April which has improved lambs reared from 160% to 175%, increased average lamb deadweight by an average 1.2kg and reduced labour to just myself and one other person with occasional seasonal help. In reality, I believe one person could manage 1500 ewes.”

Kevin Stewart’s journey towards improved flock efficiency began in early the 2000’s.

“We had attempted to cut costs by lambing outdoors and reducing labour, but we hadn’t been as successful as I would have liked.

“We were running a flock of pure Lleyns however we decided we needed more weight in the lambs and a hardier ewe to thrive on our exposed unit running at between 800-1000ft above sea-level. It’s a dry county averaging 26” rainfall.

“I became aware of the Highlander as a maternal line that offered those values and it seemed a way to achieve our goals; it was also noted to be a good foraging sheep,” Kevin said.

Being amongst the first in the UK to demonstrate interest in the genetics, Kevin did his own research before travelling to the Highlander’s native New Zealand to check it out.

“Once I realised it would deliver, then it was a case of fast forwarding. We initially introduced the genetics 10 years ago, since then it has enabled us to reduce costs, develop a closed high health MV accredited flock and to which we have introduced a rigorous Farm Health Plan.

“The Highlander is proving to be a thrifty, resilient, hardy medium sized dam averaging 68kg pre-tupping. It’s a prolific sheep, it seems to easily maintain condition and subsequent fertility, and it’s pleasing on the eye – it looks functional,” he said.

“We run one ram to 80 to 100 ewes without teasers, the flock is consistently scanning 200% and rearing 170% lambs; 80% to 90% lamb within the first 17 days, whilst new born lambs are nicely covered and can stand most weather.

“Whilst we check the lambing ewes twice a day and are aware we need to be around, sometimes we consider we’re not doing any good and may as well go on holiday. We literally don’t have to touch them, the second lamb is usually born quickly after the first, the lambs are very quick to their fee, and when left, the ewes make for great mothers taking their lambs with them.

“Nowadays we are farming a 600-elite ewe flock of pure Highlanders – selected on strict criteria to breed replacements whilst the remainder are sold for breeding purposes. We’ve been able to cut replacement rates from 25% to 20% simply because they demonstrate real longevity lasting five to six crops whilst rams will work a minimum four years – they are very active brutes, we run one ram to 80 to 100 ewes. Draft ewes and those that demand attention at lambing, are crossed to the Aberblack meat sire.”

The remaining 900 Highlander ewes are crossed to the Aberfield ram primarily for ewe lamb production.

“There’s a real demand from commercial producers throughout the country for this kind of easily managed ewe from a closed flock and I think it’s going to achieve an even wider appeal when compared to the Mule as they can produce comparable kilos of lamb, but as a lighter efficient forager can be stocked tighter and fed less.

“This two way cross is also proving to be an easy care sheep; yes it still has to be managed, however both Aberfield and Highlander lines have been selected for efficiency, their ability to thrive from forage based diets, they both are really maternal and prolific – the best of all worlds.

“We have just tried and tested 200 Aberfield cross Highlander ewe lambs; we gave them a 14-day blast with the New Zealand Suffolk, they scanned 120% and 70% conceived in the 14 days.”

Kevin Stewart’s diversification features an arrangement working with Innovis, both as a breeding partner and a ram growing unit rearing rams to point of sale from pure forage based diets. The venture culminates in an annual auction of 400 shearling rams which he hosts at Springhall.

As an official Innovis ram grower, he rears on 200 ram lambs – Aberfield, Abermax and Primera, which have been bred and reared on forage at Innovis multiplier units throughout the country, whilst the remaining 50% comprises homebred – Abermax, Aberblack, Highlander and New Zealand Suffolk.

“Being a ram grower delivers consistency to a very high standard across the Innovis landscape. It is monitored to a strict and vigorous procedure with all rams undergoing a monthly inspection; they’re weighed and inspected for teeth, toes, testicles and type and any failing to make the grade are culled.”

This enterprise working with performance recorded sheep complements Kevin’s mindset. A founder member of the Suffolk Sheep Society’s inaugural scheme, he has been synonymous with performance recording for more than three decades.

“Performance recording is all about helping to select the most functional, efficient sheep, it’s never been about pretty faces,” he says adding: “We are continuing to performance record our Highlander flock, a process that we believe will help us to select more rigorously for the key performance traits and move it forward to the next level.”

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