Not every farming business has its own mission statement but the McGowans at Incheoch do and they live up to it. Ewan Pate reports.
The McGowan’s aim is to produce ‘functional, efficient breeding stock’ and that goal remains at the front of everything they do on their upland farm near Alyth, Perthshire.
Neil and Debbie McGowan, Neil’s parents Finlay and Judy and his sister, Clare are well known for their pedigree herds of Simmental and Luing cattle and flocks of Lleyn and Texel sheep.
Selected shearling rams from both flocks are sold at an on-farm sale in early September but the Lleyns are at the commercial heart of the 1,000-ewe system. The story started with Debbie’s arrival at Incheoch in 2000, bringing with her 40 Lleyn ewes and 20 ewe hoggs.
The breed was still relatively unknown in Scotland but Debbie had experience going back to 1992 on her parents’ farm near Castle Douglas. At that time the farm was stocked with Blackface and Bleu du Maine sheep with Mule gimmers bought-in. The search was on for a smaller commercial ewe and the Lleyn caught Debbie’s eye even though it was on the minority breed list.
She says: “It is hard to believe it now with the Lleyn thought to be the fourth most numerous breed in the UK, but in the early 1980s it really was the last throw of the dice. They had nearly died out on Lleyn peninsula where they had been bred for centuries as dual purpose milk and meat animals under quite tough conditions. Only a few enthusiasts could see the potential and that is what saved them from extinction.
“We bought our first ones from Dennis Ison, who I think may have been one of the first people to have them in Scotland and put them to a Charollais tup. The next year we had a tup lamb on loan from Derek Steen and bred them pure.”
By this time Debbie had become so interested in the potential of these hardy and versatile white faced sheep that she had become breed development officer, a role she filled for seven years. During this time other breeders had become involved including Michael Cusiter on Orkney. The Lleyns were no longer a minority breed and on their way to making their mark in the commercial world. Breed sales at Carlisle and Perth were introduced.
The McGowans also run a 100 pedigree Texel flock to produce breeding stock for sale and also provide rams for use on their commercial Lleyns.
Neil says: “They are selected to add growth and carcase to prime lambs without adding any extra hassle.”
Lambing ease and high fat to allow lambs to be finished off grass and worm tolerance are key traits.
Meanwhile, Neil was experimenting with sheep breeds at Incheoch. He says: “I knew lamb survivability was the thing which paid the bills and I wanted to find a ewe which fitted the bill. I had been experimenting with various crosses with some success and once the Lleyns arrived we started to use them as part of the programme. It became clear that actually none of the crosses were working as well as the pure Lleyns.
Now all 1,000 ewes, apart from some pedigree Texels, are Lleyns including a stud flock of 300. The Texel is used as a terminal sire on most of the commercial ewes. The wisdom of moving to a single breed policy was reinforced by the foot-and-mouth outbreaks in 2001 and 2007. Taking away the need to go out and buy replacement breeding stock made biosecurity sense.
Neil says: “On my first trip to New Zealand in 1998 I had seen the work being done working with a pure breed then selecting for ewes which were efficient in their own environment. I came home keen to do that and realised the Lleyns enabled us to achieve the aim of having sheep which were a little less work to keep.
“Sheep are one of the few ways into farming for a new entrant. Some sunshine and a few bits of land which nobody wants is all which is needed to produce one of the most valuable of red meats. The only other ingredient is a lot of hard work, so it makes sense to minimise that side as much as possible.”
So the task of building up a ’functional, efficient and robust’ breeding flock began. Recording was soon put at the heart of the process. Lamb growth from grass is Signet recorded, but Neil and Debbie wanted also to be able to compare maternal traits accurately as an aid to selection. They decided to devise their own system but to keep it as simple as possible. They recruited SAC Consulting sheep specialist John Vipond to help and devise a scoring system which was easily recorded using only observation and a notebook or tablet.
It takes only three digits to describe ease of lambing, mothering score and lamb vigour. These scores are kept throughout the ewe’s life and are available under ’dam’s details’ on the on-farm ram sale catalogue. The scores also advise which ewes should be taken out of the stud flock and into the commercial flock.
The attention to detail in recording and selection is not only paying off in the ewe flock – it is also being reflected in the commercial lambs. All but those kept as replacements or sold for breeding, including gimmers, are destined for Woodhead Brothers. Over the years the improved genetic potential has seen liveweight increased by 4kg at 20 weeks. Last year 620 lambs were sold off autumn grass and red clover at an average carcase weight of 20.3kg. Only one graded O, with all the rest E, U or R making an average price of £76.
To achieve that level of performance good tolerance to worms is seen as a key factor and the McGowans have carried out thousands of faecal egg counts over the years to back up high estimated breeding value figures for the trait.
Lambing starts at the end of April into the first half of May and is all outside with the ewes not stocked too densely. Neil and Debbie supervise it all themselves with no outside help. There is no creep feeding for the lambs.
This is the second year the ewes have been fed on swedes over the leanest part of the late winter and the system works well requiring little time to move the electric fence forward every day. The ewes and ewe hoggs running with them also have access to a grass field and are offered hay as a supplement.