Landlines: Hope springs eternal on region’s farms

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FEBRUARY is a treacherous month. No sooner did a sunny day or two try to convince me that winter was over than the weather deteriorated again to rain and sleet or the temperature dropped ten degrees with a wind straight from the Urals.

But hope springs eternal, as it has to when there is so much land work to be done.

We know monthly divisions are artificial, but perhaps the first day of March and first day of spring tomorrow, Friday, will bring better, more consistent, weather.

I realise that the vernal equinox isn’t due until March 20 and that is the official first day of spring. But, getting back to artificial monthly divisions, I find it easier to say goodbye to winter at the end of February while knowing deep down, as most of us do, from bitter experience that March can be every bit as unpleasant.

Here’s hoping that does not apply this year and that March will be a wonderful month for all arable farming operations, not to mention kind to men and sheep during the main lowland lambing season. And while we work and hope we can all keep an eye open for pigs flying past.

Farmers, shepherds and stockmen are also being urged to be alert for any indication of Schmallenberg virus, which can cause aborted or deformed lamb and calf foetuses

More than 1300 farms have now been identified as infected in England, some within a flock at lambing time causing devastating losses of up to 40 per cent of lambs.

Dealing with the lamb deaths that always occur for various reasons in the best of flocks can be frustrating enough.

The realisation as lambing goes on that a particular virus is causing massive losses must be worse.

The Schmallenberg virus first reached Britain from the Continent only last year and there are more questions than answers about it. As NFU Scotland Nigel Miller, who is also a vet, said recently: “The impact of Schmallenberg virus in Scotland will depend on where the disease is, when it arrives and temperature limits at which it can replicate within the midges that spread it – all questions that at present we can’t answer.”

Trying to plan ahead to counteract the possible effects of the virus might include putting rams to the ewes later than usual in autumn when midge activity in Scotland and the north of England might have slowed or disappeared.

There are also hopes that a vaccine against the virus might be developed this year. Being alert for the first indications of its effects in a flock or herd is vital.

There is some slight encouragement in another direction for sheep farmers with an increase in lamb prices. Ironically, one of the reasons for that is the parlous state of the British economy as a whole as a slump in the value of sterling has helped lamb exports.

Meantime, full marks to Quality Meat Scotland for continuing its efforts to encourage more farmers to record sheep performance with the message that only if facts are known – as with Schmallenberg – can action be taken.

Stuart Annand, head of Scottish Sheep Strategy Development for QMS in the north of Scotland, had a recent message that is equally applicable to sheep farmers in the south of Scotland, or indeed north of England and the rest of the world.

It is that having performance records for such factors as weaning weight of lambs, sale weights for store and prime lambs, daily liveweight gain from marking to weaning, pregnancy scanning percentage, that percentage of potential lambs compared with percentage actually weaned, and that weaned percentage compared with percentage sold, can identify the weak links in a flock.

I accept, as no doubt does Mr Annand, that many sheep farmers are already well aware of all of the above and make a top job of recording and acting on those records.

But all anecdotal evidence suggests that there are still many sheep farmers who don’t do any of the above and, therefore, have no right to moan about prices at any stage.

Mr Annand said: “The opportunity to increase returns lies inside the farm gate for every flock, regardless of farm type or breed of sheep.”

He added: “Small, focused, changes of management can make a significant collective difference … For example, increase the average weight of weaned lambs by six kilos and add more than £11 per ewe to output value.”

Again I accept that giving advice is invariably easier than acting on it. But as has been said many times if you’re not in business to try and make a profit by doing everything possible, what is the point?

A final piece of advice worth noting is that another legacy of last year’s appalling summer could be an increased risk of farmer’s lung for those handling damp straw, hay and grain.

Dust particles on such products can carry the mould spores that can attack our lungs, leading in some cases to horrible, long-term effects. Take care.