Drinkstone farm by Hawick
Scientists should be researching better grass to help the environment. So says the 2010 Future Farmer Award winner Arnold Park of the famed Drinkstone flocks of Texel and Suffolks.
"We are still relying on nitrogen to increase grass yield - it should be plant breeders increasing grass yield without using nitrogen, potash and phosphates," he said. "The government is very slow to pick up on these ideas where in actual fact they are just as important or maybe more important than trying to run cars on fresh air."
The pioneering Hawick farmer also says livestock farmers could help the Scottish Government top its aim of cutting carbon emissions by 11 per cent before 2020: he has cut his by 20 per cent and says other sheep farmers could do the same. "By using improved genetics, the Scottish sheep industry could achieve 20 per cent improvements in carbon foot-print - a figure which EBLEX (an independent levy board to increase profitability and sustainablity in English beef and lamb] agrees is already being achieved with Drinkstone stock. This is a tremendous achievement for us."
Arnold Park farms at Drinkstone, in partnership with his son John and wife Dianne. In the 1960s he realised genetic improvements in farming would be the basis for the industry to move forward. At the time the emphasis was on increasing milk and cereal yields. He gained first-hand experience on the family’s dairy farm before becoming a UK leader in Landrace pig genetics.
It was 30 years ago when Arnold’s father gave his son, John, some Suffolk ewes that they quickly set about performance recording to identify sheep that produced better carcases.
Drinkstone is a marginal hill farm rising to more than 1,000 feet which includes 800 acres of improved and 500 acres of hill land. It is fair to say that today Arnold’s role is as Drinkstone ambassador, marketing manager, webmaster and administrator. Son, John, also takes a strong role in marketing and manages all the farming enterprises. Man power comes from the family, plus a part-time shepherd and full-time Polish farm labourer.
Today at Drinkstone there are three flocks of pedigree recorded sheep, namely 80 Suffolk ewes; 120 Texel ewes and a small flock of Blue Faced Leicester ewes. There are also 750 Scotch Black Face (Hexham type) ewes and a herd of 75 pedigree Luing cows.
The farm is mainly down to grass, with 20 acres of barley. Twenty acres of kale is grown for finishing lambs and 800 tonnes of silage is made, with ewes housed at lambing and fed a silage based diet through the winter.
The sheep enterprise is genetically targeted to improve lean meat yields and carcase growth. The added bonus is the production of lambs faster, with more lean meat, requiring less grass and consequently reducing nitrogen inputs.
Average breed scan weight and Drinkstone scan weight were 3.25kg, over ten years the industry average has increased to 5.5kg, while Drinkstone’s has increased to 11kg
Drinkstone genetics increased EBV by 5.5kg above the average over a ten year period.
One ram serving 60 ewes and siring 90 lambs would culminate in an extra 495kg of meat. At £2/kg this yields an extra £990 per ram. Over an average flock of say 300 ewes this would yield an extra £4,950.
In Scotland in 2009 some 3,998,988* lambs were produced. If they had been sired by Drinkstone comparable genetics this would have amounted to an extra 21,994,434kg - a value into the Scottish sheep industry of nearly £44,000,000. *Scottish Sheep Census.
Recognising genetics as the key driver from the outset, all Drinkstone breeding stock has, uniquely, always been performance recorded. Today that means meticulous weight records and on farm ultrasound scanning. CT (computed tomography) scan is also used to increase accuracy of meat yield and gigot muscularity. This enables Drinkstone to demonstrate to national and international customers dissections of live carcases showing gigot and eye muscle. These are important traits which leading sheep breeders around the world are targeting to provide quality high yielding, high value carcases.
Drinkstone is at the forefront of performance recording, CT scanning, EBV (Estimated Breeding Values) evaluations, however the majority of the UK sheep industry remains untouched by technology adopted by the dairy and pig sectors half a century ago.
Drinkstone logic is relatively simple: Long lived productive stock reduces the emission costs over a greater weight of meat produced; the same analogy can be adopted for lambs per ewe reared – the greater the number – the greater the yield weight of lamb achieved for the maintenance emissions of the ewe flock. Therefore it is not just about quality carcases. As a result of meticulous recording with fastidious EBV longevity is continually improved along with maternal instincts and lamb vigour. Improvements in worm resistance (FEC) are also achieved.
Lamb vigour is most evident in the Black Face flock where during the past two lambing seasons not a single lamb has required to be suckled at birth – a massive turn-around thanks to recording and selection. Within the Suffolk flock it was thanks to identifying a ram carrying the vigour gene that greater vigour has been significantly injected into this flock.
Putting into practice the principles of developing Drinkstone’s genetics has in recent years yielded:
- Highest index Suffolk ram on six occasions in the past ten years – a UK record.
- Highest index Texel ram on three occasions in the past five years
- Texel flock in top 1% of breed average
- Export orders in the past five years, including semen, embryos and live breeding stock to Ireland, Belguim, Holland, Hungry, German; semen to Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Rumania and Italy.
- Three Scottish based flocks among the world’s elite – increasing outputs while driving down greenhouse gas emissions.
Drinkstone Developing the Future
Having achieved a significant head start it is undeniable, the goal posts have moved – but there is significant overlap. Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are firmly on the agenda. The UK Government target is to reduce emissions per kilo of product – within the agricultural sector by 11%, by 2020. The gains made in performance for economic reasons also work for emissions reduction – more lamb is produced from the same resources – a win win strategy!
If by 2020, 50% of Scottish lamb was produced from Drinkstone genetics, or comparable, the Scottish sheep sector would have increased efficiency and smashed the UK target, reducing emissions by in excess of 20%