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Dedication of Fife Sheep Farming Family Recognised

The dedication and attention to detail shown by a Fife sheep farming family based near Cupar, led to their farm being selected as a finalist in the Agriscot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year 2017.

This prestigious annual competition is run by Agriscot and Quality Meat Scotland and sponsored by Thorntons.

Ian Whiteford farms Hilltarvit Mains in partnership with his wife, Margaret, son John and daughter-in-law Lucy. Apart from the home farm, the family rent and contract farm other land in Fife to bring their total area to just under 550 hectares.

The main enterprise is arable and there are 190 suckler cows and 30 heifers but Ian Whiteford said the sheep flock is an efficient way to utilise grass and fits very well with their overall farming enterprise.

There are 520 North of England Mule ewes which are put to 12 Texel and Suffolk rams. Mr Whiteford has worked with Mules for about 30 years and sees no reason to change. “They are ‘lambing machines’ in terms of the lambs they produce and their excellent mothering ability,” he said.

The flock has impressive lambing percentages, with ewes scanning at 220% and gimmers scanning at 190%. With just 10 barren ewes and about 10 per cent losses from January to sale time, the end result is 195% lambs sold per ewes put to the tup.

Attention to detail at lambing time is key to having so many lambs to sell and, while Ian and Lucy look after the sheep all year round, Margaret and two vet students help out at lambing time.

“Achieving a high lambing percentage requires well-trained students and business partners to ensure minimal losses,” said Mr Whiteford.

The ewes are lambed indoors in a grain shed adapted for the purpose and turned out onto clean grazing in the most sheltered fields after 24 hours.

Any lambs not thriving or small triplets are lifted and put onto an automatic hot milk dispenser and receive colostrum.

Mr Whiteford stressed that after a fairly intensive lambing period, the sheep have to be low maintenance through the summer to allow the family to focus on the harvest. This year around 35 to 40 singles were sold off their mothers in July before the rest of the lambs were dipped.

He said: “We find dipping much more effective than pour-ons and, because we don’t sell the majority of the lambs before October, there is no risk of breaching the retention period.”

From October through to December lambs are finished off grass and stubble turnips. Lambs finishing in January and February are also fed ad-lib whole oats from a hopper. “We are lucky in this area that there is plenty of autumn grazing to be had including ecological focus areas (EFAs) on local arable farms,” said Mr Whiteford.

The Suffolk and Texel sired lambs are sold at Caledonian Marts, Stirling at between 48 and 50kg liveweight and they have to have good fat cover. The average price for lambs sold in the 2016/17 season was £87, with the Whitefords finding a good butcher market for these heavier lambs.  

He said: “This market seems to have developed over the last three or four years and it appears that some butchers prefer a larger carcase to get bigger joints and more cutting versatility.

He added: “We have had good feedback from our customers.”

One hundred replacement gimmers are purchased in September, given Enzovax and Toxovax and put on the Foot Vaccs system. They are kept separately on contract farmed ground until tupping when they are integrated with the flock. The Whitefords use Suffolk tups on the gimmers and Texels on the ewes mainly for identification purposes but also because the faster finishing Suffolk is counteracted by being from a first-time mother and it means large even batches of 120 lambs can be sold at a time to keep trips to the market to a minimum.

Mr Whiteford was surprised and delighted that his farm was nominated for the AgriScot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year and made it to the final three.