The Thomson brothers, Sandy, Roddy and Hugh, are a true definition of dedicated sheep farmers, having built up a commercial flock of breeding ewes over the last 30 years.
Katrina Macarthur reports...
Sheep farming may require hard work, expertise and long hours in spring to ensure a good return each year, but the sector does need significantly less capital than others, as the Thomson brothers can confirm.
They farm with their respective families at West Park, a 194-hectare (480-acre) unit near Aberfeldy, Perthshire, which is mainly arable and permanent pasture.
A further 245ha (600 acres) is farmed at the neighbouring unit, Croftmoraig, which includes 79ha (195 acres) of permanent pasture, 81ha (200 acres) of rough grazing and 83ha (205 acres) of hill ground.
West Park was also home to a 200-cow suckler herd which consisted of mainly Limousin cross and Simmental cross cows, but due to costs continually increasing and parts of the steading in need of a revamp, the family dispersed its entire spring-calving herd in 2013.
Last year, they sold half of their autumn herd and plan to sell the remaining 50 cows by the end of this summer.
Roddy says: “Our cattle sheds, slurry system and silage pit are all in need of a serious upgrade and we just do not think it is worth the investment. Buying straw in this area is a nightmare and the beef sector just does not add up without support payments.
“You have high input costs with cattle, such as machinery, bedding and feeding, and continental breeds need to be well looked after. At least with sheep you can change your system overnight and you can cut your overheads according to the market. Changing your cattle system could take 10 years and it is certainly a lot more expensive.”
While sheep numbers have been increased by 600-head in the last few years, it is the Cheviot which is the core of this large-scale enterprise and a breed which the family has been using for 20 years. The flock includes 500 pure Cheviots, 250 Beltex or three-quarter Beltex cross and Texel crosses, 750 Cheviot Mules and 300 Texel Mules.
Each year, Cheviot gimmers are sourced at Dingwall mart, but the Thomsons are now aiming to breed their own replacements to try and utilise ground they have available.
Cheviot rams are also bought at Dingwall and crossed to the top half of ewes to breed pure, while the bottom half go to the Aberfield to breed replacements for both units.
The best of the Cheviot Mule ewes are put to the Texel for breeding replacements, with six to eight rams bought per year. Texel rams from Michael Rattray, West Park, near Auchterarder, have really made a stamp on the flock.
The remainder go to a New Zealand Suffolk for producing fat lambs which are sold through Highland Glen, while Texel and Beltex cross ewes are tupped to a Beltex. Recent tups include Beltex from Alasdair MacLean’s Tiree flock and Alan Sutherland’s Barnaheigh flock.
Hugh says: “We start breeding with the Cheviot at the top of the hill and work our way down until we have a Beltex cross ewe on the lowland ground. It is a system that is working well for us and lambing three different lots of sheep results in the workload being evenly spread during the busy period.”
Roddy says: “We have been using the NZ Suffolk for a while now and find they are very hardy and lighter boned, with lambs up on their feet quick and suckling. The Aberfield is fairly new to us but, so far, we have been getting a shapely ewe for replacing and a better lamb which has plenty go about it.”
Lambing kicks off in mid-March with the top half of the Cheviot Mules and Beltex/Texel crosses, while Cheviot ewes lamb from April 15 onwards. Triplet-bearing ewes and leaner ewes carrying twins lamb inside during March and the rest are left outside, weather permitting.
In contrast to most commercial sheep farmers, the Thomson brothers have moved away from the popular Mule ewe which, although it has reduced their lambing percentages, they are still retaining the same amount of lambs.
Roddy says: “Mules are too prolific and they require more feed and usually need to be lambed inside. Our Mules have scanned as high as 212 per cent and we just ended up with casualties or surplus lambs.
“We have done a lot of work to try and reduce the number of triplets and quads – a ewe outside with twins is the way forward.”
All tups are fitted with crayons and the harness colour is changed every eight days so the ewes can be batched accordingly for feeding and lambing.
The brothers say although it is a lot of work at tupping time, it certainly pays off and avoids ewes poaching lambs. The flock gets 16 per cent ewe rolls from after scanning and only the triplet-bearing ewes are fed twice-a-day. Nearer lambing, they go onto 18 per cent ewe rolls along with ad-lib energy buckets.
“We are trying to move away from high overheads of concentrates and use grass and forage,” says Roddy.
“Rotational grass is turned over every four to five years and forage rape is direct drilled into burned-off stubble.”
All wether lambs and those not suitable for breeding are finished on-farm. The Thomsons sell two tothree batches of lambs per month from June to the following May, and Roddy points out that many of them are sold directly off grass from their mothers.
The latter go onto forage rape before receiving finishing pellets and barley at the turn of the year.
Each year, 150 to 200 four-crop ewes are sold with lambs at foot at United Auctions’ Stirling centre and the family regularly does well there. Ewes with twin lambs have sold to a top of £210 and last year averaged £170, while ewes with single lambs cashed in at £135.
Roddy says: “Selling cast ewes with lambs at foot replaces the cashflow of store calves which used to be sold in spring. We also buy-in 60 to 70 Texel cross cast ewes from the Ballantynes at Brora and cross them with a Beltex for selling as one unit the following year.”
In recent years, the family has enjoyed championship wins at both Perth and Aberfeldy shows with Texel and Beltex cross lambs. They also attended the Royal Northern Spring Show at Thainstone for the first time last year and stood champion and reserve in the live and dead competition.
Lambs bred at West Park also scooped the same titles at the previous year’s event for David Black, Kirriemuir, who buys a draw of ewe lambs from the flock every year.
As for what the future holds for the sheep sector in the UK, the Thomsons remain optimistic.
“You can dabble in your sheep flock all the time to make improvements and if you rely upon hardy productive sheep that require less input costs, the job surely becomes more viable,” says Roddy.
"Hopefully the market stays steady and the fiasco surrounding a no-deal Brexit is just a blip. These people need our lambs.”