Oban Times farming column – November 2017
Ewen Campbell, SRUC’s Kirkton & Auchtertyre research farms manager
The opportunity to try new things, visit different places and meet new people is without doubt the best part of my job and in the last month I have been fortunate enough to experience all three! Sometimes when we get farmers visiting Kirkton and Auchtertyre, they can be a bit reserved and are not always willing to be involved in discussions, but one subject which always starts a lively debate is which breed or breeds are best suited to each situation. With this in mind, the decision to add a new breed or breeds at Kirkton is not something that is taken lightly. After a discussion with our farm advisory group, who were instrumental in the decision to re-establish a cattle herd at Kirkton four years ago, we have purchased eight in-calf Highland cows from the Isle of Mull, with the aim being to increase this number to 15 eventually. Their purpose will be to compliment the good work being done by our current herd of Aberdeen Angus cows in improving the hill grazing and grassland management. Initially we will be using them to try and encourage new grass to grow where the bracken spraying has taken place beside the A82. Our plan is to feed them where the bracken was most dense and once they have churned the ground up a bit, apply seed and fertiliser in an attempt to make these areas more productive.
The rams were put out with the ewes at the end of November and so far the weather has been favourable but it looks like things could turn a lot colder as Christmas approaches.
That’s it for the livestock. As I was saying last month, my colleagues here are part of a European sheep network project called SheepNet. As part of the network activities, we just had an international workshop in Timisoara in western Romania. I was very fortunate to be able to join the discussions as a farmer stakeholder. It was a busy 4 days (2 days of which were travelling there and back…not the most direct route, it took me 3 flights to get there!). But once there, it was very worthwhile. The whole group comprised of around 60 people from 8 different countries (UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Romania, Turkey, and Hungary), a mixture of scientists, consultants, vets and farmers. The first day was devoted to farms visits. We saw 2 sheep farms. The first one was in a place called Calacea. The farmer and his father in law just bought the farm four years ago. They had mostly crops (1300 ha), but used their sheep to graze on the stubbles after harvest. They also had access to common grazing (120 ha). They had 2000 sheep (Transylvanian Merinos and German Blackheaded and Turcana crosses) and did 3 lambings in 2 years, to produce meat. It was very interesting to see their system. They had a dedicated shepherd who stays with the animals most of the time and moved them from place to place - we even had a demonstration of his skills (and of his traditional sheep coat, which impressed lots of us!). The second farm was quite different, more modern by our standards. They had 2600 sheep in total, of dual purpose (meat and milk). The breed was a local one, the Turcana, and they only practiced one lambing per year, and by all means, the system was a bit more intensive. They only had 260 ha of land, most of it as organic pasture. The animals spend the winter in a shed, and in the summer, the shed is also used to fatten the lambs. The ewes (around 800) are milked daily outside, by hand. They had a little dairy on the farm producing cheese, which the farmer kindly let us sample along with his very drinkable home brew! Again, it was fascinating to see such a different system to ours. Finally, we visited a cooperative cheese factory, co-owned by 13 sheep breeders. We had the full tour of the facilities, and, of course, finished by sampling their products too!
The second day was devoted to discussions, held at the University of Timisoara, with the different participants. We were presented with solutions to the different sheep issues (related to reproduction, gestation and lambing mortality) that were identified in the past workshops, and discussed which ones could be relevant to our own country situation. The format of the discussions was very interactive, and allowed me (and the other UK farmers) to discuss with people from the other countries.
The whole trip was a great experience and was rounded off with a visit to a winery where we tasted some wines and then had dinner. The after dinner discussions were very informative and it was great to hear the views of farmers from other countries. Generally their problems are the same as this country, lack of labour and young people coming into the industry, high degree of reliance on subsidy and climate change, if only we could get some of their sun and give them some of our rain!