Farming in the north of Scotland brings its challenges in terms of climate, with a relatively short growing season resulting in long winter periods.
The Sutherland family at Sibmister farm just 10 miles from Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland UK which sits at a latitude between Gothenburg in Sweden and Oslo in Norway.
The farm extends to 1,250 acres of owned ground as well as around 300 acres of rented grazing taken each year by the family. In 2021, the farm will lamb down over 2,000 ewes and calve over 400 suckler cows.
Stephen Sutherland this week said this week that lambing is just coming to an end and calving is about halfway through.
Like in Ireland, spring 2021 has been cooler than normal and grass growth has yet to kick off to any great extent on the farm.
When the Irish Farmers Journal last visited in 2019, the farm was running 1,600 ewes, but further expansion has taken place since.
Central to this being able to happen has been the building of sheep housing with capacity for 900 ewes in 2018.
Stephen said they needed somewhere to get at least some of the ewes in off the land in order to give it a rest over the winter and make the overall management of the sheep system more streamlined and labour-efficient.
Prior to having the sheds in place, a lot of time was spent feeding and shepherding ewes during the winter.
Stephen said he couldn’t justify building an “all-under-one-roof” shed for sheep when it would only be used for such a short period of time.
Lambing pens were already in place on the farm and therefore this system provided everything they needed for sheep housing.
Now, 900 of the earliest-lambing ewes are housed at scanning. These are then drafted on to straw-bedded pens a week before their lambing date which allows the slatted sheds be refilled with the next batch of ewes from outside.
The three sheds total 600ft in length, with two being 220ft and the last being 160ft. The slats are 12ft wide, comprised of two 6ft lengths.
Stephen said that to avoid having pillars every few feet in the tank, they installed crash barrier box beams every 15ft along the length of the tank and then ran a line of box beams down the centre of the tank on which the frames of the 6ft slats sit on.
The tanks are 5ft deep but slope to 8ft at the end to allow a conventional agitator be used to mix the slurry when needed.
Stephen said there is capacity for a few years’ manure in this, but they keep the tanks cleaned out each year as they can be hard to agitate if left too long. The rainwater can be harvested from the roof and diverted into the tanks to allow easier agitation.
The shed itself is just 8ft high at the back, rising to 10ft at the front. Staring into the North Sea, the worst of the weather comes from the north and so the sheds are Yorkshire boarded to the north and open to the south. The sheds are also dug into a steep hill which provides shelter from the south.
Ewes can be fed on both sides of the shed. There is no overhang on either side to allow easy access for the diet feeder.
Each 20ft bay houses 30 ewes which gives almost 40ft of feeding space, meaning a feed space of around 1ft 4in/ewe.
The family carried out most of the work themselves. Stephen said one of the biggest costs was the digging out of the site, which meant moving huge amounts of the hill just behind the existing farmyard.
Stephen put the cost of the sheds and tanks at €87,000 (£75,000). This gives a cost per ewe space of just over €90 (£83). He concluded, that while it was a big investment for the farm at the time, over the lifespan of the shed, the reduced winter labour requirement and the benefit the land gets from a rest period, it was well worth the investment.