Abbey St Bathans sheep farmers in the running for national award

Charley and Andrea Walker at Barnside, Duns. Sheep Farmer Finalists in the Farmers Weekly Awards 2012
Charley and Andrea Walker at Barnside, Duns. Sheep Farmer Finalists in the Farmers Weekly Awards 2012

AN Abbey St Bathans couple have been shortlisted as finalists for the Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year Award.

Charley and Andrea Walker, of Barnside Farm, must now wait until October to discover if they have won the coveted award.

Nature, nurture nudity - these are the three principles driving profitable sheep production at Barnside.

The “three Ns” may sound like a wacky concept, but the ability to adapt to change and produce a low-input system that returns a good margin while offering a good-quality family life makes the system a real success.

The 625-acre organic upland beef and sheep farm is home to 800 wool-shedding ewes and 70 Welsh Black suckler cows.

The key factor to the success of the business has been the development of production systems and genetics that have reduced costs of production without significantly lowering productivity.

So what do the three Ns mean? Nature stands for the fact the Walkers operate a strict culling regime; the selection of breeding stock is based on underlying principles - they must give birth without assistance and must perform on grass better than grain.

The nurture aspect relates to managing the whole flock rather than offering lavish individual care, and nudity refers to farming sheep without wool.

“These are the principles on which I base my selection of breeding stock,” says Charley.

The wool-shedding ewes are a composite mix that includes Easycare, New Zealand Romney, Cheviot and in some cases Katahdin hair sheep, which Mr Walker discovered while on his Nuffield travels. These are then bred to Easycare or Katahdin rams.

Ewe replacements are selected from those lambs born and reared as twins by ewes with proven twinning ability and that don’t require individual attention.

Use of EID has been instrumental in the Walkers’ breeding policy.

However, Charley believes the industry could make greater genetic gains if DNA parentage was cheaper.

He said: “We are also working with Farmplan to try and get our software system for EID working better so it caters more for sheep farmers.

“Having this could help us analyse the data better.”

Grassland management is also fundamental to this organic system. Ewes lamb at pasture in late April/early May to eliminate the need for pre- and post-lambing feeding.

From mid-June ewes and lambs are rotationally grazed to aid pasture management and encourage clover, and from July spring reseeds are included in the rotation.

Reseeding is vital for clean grazing and weed management and the Walkers reseed 46 acres a year at a cost of £4,700 - or 55p a ewe - with each field reseeded once every six years.

A break crop of turnips is also introduced into the rotation, which provides food for ewe hoggs after Christmas. Big bale silage is also fed from January onwards.

Operating a clean grazing policy and the flock’s wool-shedding abilities means there is no requirement for shearing, chemical applications or drenching. Therefore, most ewes and lambs do not require handling, keeping stress levels low. And this is probably one of the reasons why vet and medicine costs only stand at £1.78 a ewe; most of that is spent on a drench at weaning for lambs and some blowfly and headfly treatments.

“We don’t routinely treat with medicines just because we can,” says Charley. “We don’t use heptovac for example, and we don’t have a problem.”

And the good health and grazing available means that the first draw of lambs sold in mid-August (three-and-a-half months) usually go away at 17.5kg.

Lambs are sold through a farmer-owned co-operative called Farmstock Scotland, and last year 93% hit specification.

“The co-operative gives us a lot of selling power and we have a dedicated fieldsman working for us creating more consistency,” adds Charley.

Farming in an environmentally sensitive way is something the Walkers are passionate about. Since taking on the tenanted Barnside farm they have successfully steered the farm through a 10-year Countryside Premium Scheme, a concurrent five-year Rural Stewardship Scheme and embarked on two Scottish Rural Development projects, which have involved planting a five-acre woodland.

Education is also a big part of the business, with the farm hosting two or three educational visits a year in a purpose-built classroom.