The Lofthouse family from Galashiels have recently been awarded the title of Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year. Lynsey Clark went to meet them.
In a bid to prove sheep farming can be profitable, over and above subsidies and on a relatively small scale, Graham Lofthouse has successfully made some major changes to his family’s livestock system at Bankhouse Farm, Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders – earning them the title of Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year 2016 at Agriscot.
By applying some innovative ideas and paying great attention to detail, the family has managed to massively reduce input costs – cutting bought-in feed by 60 per cent – while also increasing production. Making these changes all the more difficult was the fact they lost 14 hectares (35 acres) of their total 121ha (300 acres) through compulsory purchase for the Waverley Rail project five years ago.
Mr Lofthouse says: “Losing the ground to the railway has certainly caused us some issues. We have a long, narrow farm, so the railway now covers 4.1 miles of our land, which we used to winter 300 ewes and 30 cows on.
“We have re-invested the compensation money into building housing for stock through winter.”
Alongside his wife, Kathleen and their young son Cameron, Mr Lofthouse runs the business with his parents Bert and Wilma. Owned by the Lofthouses since 1959, Bankhouse was previously a dairy and pig unit but it has been a beef and sheep farm for the past three decades. However, it was not until about eight years ago Mr Lofthouse decided a complete rethink of the system was necessary as profits were dwindling.
“We had a predominately Texel flock for many years, but we found the ewes were getting too big, requiring too much feed and not producing enough lambs. We wanted a ewe which could produce its own bodyweight in lambs, so eight years ago we bought our first Easy Care tups, and we have upgraded up the whole flock with them.
“For the past four years running, they have succeeded in producing more than their own bodyweight of lambs, which shows how efficient they are. The ewes scan at 184 per cent and we now have lamb mortality down to 7 per cent from scanning to selling, compared to the 15 per cent we regularly lost previously.”
By introducing a paddock grazing system, Mr Lofthouse has also managed to increase livestock numbers, with the farm now holding 439 Easy Care ewes, plus 123 ewe hoggs, and 75 cows.
He says: “We set the stock in spring and after a month they are grouped into twin and single batches, with ewes and lambs rotated up to daily, depending on pasture growth, around the 62 paddocks which are one or two hectares in size.
“It is not a system which would suit every farm, but it works for us and means we can carry a lot of stock on a small acreage. This year, we have been able to produce 872kg per hectare, between sheep and beef.”
Mr Lofthouse says attending the Borders Grazing Group, through Quality Meat Scotland, has been a great driver to the success of his paddock grazing.
“We do a lot of analysis, which really helps keep on top of the system, and it is great being able to discuss and share ideas with like-minded people. I go to a few different groups and find them really beneficial.”
The Lofthouses breed their own replacement females from the best of the Easy Care ewes and retain the best tup lambs, having bought only one out-cross ram in the last eight years. Aside from this, they only buy in Suffolk tups, of which they have two.
Mr Lofthouse says they buy recorded Suffolks, looking particularly at the estimated breeding values (EBVs) for high eight-week weights, high scan weights and positive back fat.
“We have been buying Suffolks on EBVs for at least 10 years now and we think it makes a big difference. It allows us to get lambs to kill-weight faster and ensures good conversion efficiencies. We buy them at Kelso or privately, normally from Kevin Stewart’s Kelso flock or Malcolm Stewart’s, Sandyknowe.
“The lower end of the ewes and those with any with minor issues, such as poor feet, are put in what we call the ‘B-mob’, which consists of 100 ewes which we put to the Suffolk tup, to produce fat lambs. Ewes with feet issues are all slaughtered after weaning.”
Mr Lofthouse’s careful grazing allocation has also allowed them to produce 500 tonnes more silage at 11ME or greater, and this has massively helped reduce production costs of the sheep, which are housed from February to April and fed a flat rate of silage. For the final four weeks before lambing, they receive 100g of soya per foetus carried, plus high selenium and B12 mineral into a total mixed ration.
Mr Lofthouse says: “I’ve always been interested in nutrition and the difference it can make to the productivity of the animals. We do not just feed based on whether they are carrying singles, twins or triplets, we also take into account the body condition of the ewe, which I think has the biggest impact on lamb viability and survival at lambing time.
“We body condition score ewes every two weeks and formulate our rations depending on body weight and foetuses carried. Last year, our costs for forage and concentrate worked out at £3.20 per ewe.”
The Lofthouses do not sell cast ewes, they are happy to keep breeding from them indefinitely, providing they have a full mouth and can maintain body condition. However, they are particularly selective about which ones are left in the breeding group.
“Our main stipulations for ewes are for them to lamb themselves; produce good colostrum and be good mothers. If they do not lamb unassisted, then they are put into the B-mob, and those which are best at all three are the ones which we will keep tup lambs to breed from.”
This year, lambing took place from April 17, with lambs ready to go from the start of August onwards. Suffolk cross lambs and any Easy Care ones which are not being kept for breeding are mainly sold through Scotbeef, with an average kill weight of about 18.7kg. Three-quarters of those lambs are sold straight off grass, with later ones given supplementary feeding outside and then the last 100, of about 750 in total, are intensely finished inside.
Graham says: “Easy Care lambs are probably not great to look at, but they kill out really well. We only had two O grades this year and they are regularly hitting 2 and 3L grades. Because we managed to reduce our production costs so much, as long as we are getting £45 per lamb then we are in clear profit. Last year our overall average was £61.45 per lamb.
“Those prices may not sound impressive compared to the top prices at markets, but it is just a different way of thinking. It is about the efficiency of the maternal lines, looking at the kilos produced and the cost of producing them. We are using the same philosophy with the cattle, which are Aberdeen–Angus/Hereford mix.”
Mr Lofthouse’s overall goal is to make the best possible returns from a relatively small family farm and to make a net profit without subsidies, which he has managed for the past four years running. He aims to achieve a good work/life balance, but the route he has chosen is certainly not an easy option. His attention to detail at every stage of the production cycle is testament to this and he is always willing to make necessary changes to improve the system.
“Trying to improve the growth rate of lambs is a constant objective and we would also like to finish even more of the lambs straight off grass.
“We prefer Easy Care ewes as they are efficient and productive, but Easy Care certainly does not mean ‘no-care’. We feel it is so important to get all the little bits right, as they add up to making a big impact overall.”
107 hectares (265 acres) NOT EQUATING TO COPY??
439 Easy Care ewes
123 ewe lambs
Sheep rotationally graze 62 paddocks
Scanning rate of 184 per cent
Mortality rate from scanning to selling of 7 per cent