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Dumfries Farming Family Strive to Maximise Potential of their Flock

The Duncanson family at Marchbank Farm, Beattock, have taken significant steps over the years to maximise productivity from their sheep flock and were ideal hosts for a recent Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) workshop entitled, “Are Ewe Ready to Breed?”
 
The focus of the workshop which was led by sheep specialist, Fiona Lovatt of Flock Health Ltd, was to maximise the potential of a flock through paying particular attention to nutrition, health, genetics and condition scoring.
 
Husband and wife team Sandy and Mary Duncanson run the 400-hectare upland farm with their younger son, Niall (24). The majority of the farm is permanent grass but around 65 hectares is ploughable and used for silage for the stock of 70 Shorthorn/Aberdeen Angus cross suckler cows and 1050 ewes.
 
As start-up farmers in 1989, the Duncansons slowly built up their stock on their first Crown Estate tenancy before being offered Marchbank, a bigger farm, in 2002. Their sheep flock is a work in progress with mules being phased out and replaced with a Lairg-type Cheviot base ewe, but it has been closed for the last three years.
 
Last year Aberfield tups were used for the first time and the family are delighted with the progeny, so the plan is to retain some Cheviots pure but cross some with the Aberfield, keep the females and use a Texel as the terminal sire.
 
“Our scanning percentage for the crossing ewes in January was 186 per cent,” said Sandy Duncanson.
 
“We believe the Aberfield will bring a degree of prolificacy to the flock but we do not really want scans much more than 190 per cent as this is a very wet, exposed farm and we do not want too many triplets,” he added.
 
The family agree that genetics plays a part in improving productivity but better management and improved grassland is crucial. 
 
“The hill ewes normally scan around 162 per cent which has improved since we started feeding them half a pound of beet pulp per head during and for a couple of weeks after tupping,” said Mary Duncanson. The in-bye ewes are not fed concentrates at tupping but are flushed on grass, usually silage aftermath.
 
The Duncansons work very closely with their vets in Lockerbie, carrying out blood tests and mineral profiles to identify and address any trace element deficiencies. They now bolus the ewes pre-tupping and pre-lambing with copper, cobalt and selenium with good results.
 
The family also use teaser tups on the in-bye flock and find that 87 to 90 per cent of the ewes lamb in the first 17 days from 1st April. 
 
“We believe that getting the nutrition and health of the ewes right, combined with using teaser tups helps us to have a more compact lambing and nearly all the in-bye ewes have lambed before the hill lambing starts on 18th April,” said Mrs Duncanson.
 
The flock is tribendazole resistant so they try to house each batch of lambing ewes for at least six weeks as part of their fluke management strategy and also to give the ground a rest so there is plenty of grass cover for ewes and lambs being turned out in early April. Ewes carrying triplets are housed from scanning in January. 
 
Son Niall explained: “The ewes are fed as high a quality silage as we can produce in a TMR system in order to lessen our reliance on bought in feed. Both feeding & bedding of the ewes is mechanised to simplify the system and ensure that it is generally a one person operation.”
 
One of the key messages to come out of the QMS workshop was that ewes should be at target condition score of 3-3.5 when the tups go out and now (between weaning and mating) is the best time to safely adjust condition score without impacting on reproduction. 
 
Fiona Lovatt stressed that ewes are likely to have come through this summer leaner than usual and farmers need to act now to increase body condition score (BCS).  Leaving it too late, flushing and tupping thin ewes will only give multiples which will lead to greater issues as pregnancy progresses.
 
It takes at least six weeks on good pasture to increase one BCS and requires almost double a ewe’s maintenance requirements, so farmers were urged to tackle it now while grass is still growing rather than leaving it until later when pasture is needed for the winter.
 
At the workshop, Dr Lovatt shared research that showed that weaning between 90 and 110 days makes no difference to the lambs but is of huge benefit to the ewes. As a result, the Duncanson’s have decided to wean their ewes 10 days earlier than their usual 14 weeks. 
 
Although the family cull hard and carry no passengers, they are keen to explore any reasons behind ewes not reaching targets. At the workshop, “iceberg” diseases including OPA, Johnes and Maedi Visna were highlighted as potential causes of underperforming flocks
 
Dr Lovatt also reminded attendees that rams cannot be forgotten either and it is important they have a full MOT before tupping season with BCS, teeth and feet all checked. The Duncansons have always considered figures alongside appearance when buying Texel tups and they selected their Aberfield rams from the elite class at Carlisle with a focus on positive backfat to ensure the lambs have the right finish.
 
Lambs not retained for breeding are mostly sold deadweight at 20kg through Vivers, those not within the specification are sold at Longtown, while the local butcher in Moffat takes five lambs a fortnight from June through to February.
 
Mary Duncanson said: “We enjoyed hosting the QMS workshop and learned a lot from the experts and also other farmers. These are uncertain times and it is critical that we sheep farmers try to maximise production as efficiently as possible.”