2020 winners follow up: John Howie, Sheep Innovator of the Year

Successfully overhauling his approach to grassland management has allowed John Howie to significantly increase sheep output at his North Ayrshire farm over the past four years. Hannah Park caught up with him after he won last year’s Sheep Innovator of the Year award.

Taking a fresh look at grassland management and efficiencies across Girtridge Farm, North Ayrshire, four years ago prompted John Howie to make some changes to his system.

In that time, John, who farms in partnership with his mother, Margaret, and sister, Mary Welsh, has set up a rotational grazing system on his 170-hectare (420-acre) farm, upped sheep numbers and dispersed a small suckler herd to focus on the beef finishing enterprise.

Discussions with other farmers and industry experts after becoming one of nine monitor farms in Scotland in 2017 prompted the change in thinking, says John, and gave him the confidence to embrace new ideas.

The monitor farm programme is part of a joint initiative by Quality Meat Scotland and AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds, with funding from the Scottish Government.

Its aim is to help improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Scottish farming and crofting businesses.

It was John’s inclination to embrace opportunity and change which captured the attention of the judging panel for the British Farming Award judges where they were unanimous in their view this ought to be encouraged in the industry.

That said, John and his family were humbled to win the category which he says gave them a real confidence boost.

“I was surprised and shocked to have won the award, especially with the high calibre of entries we were up against,” says John.

“Sheep innovation is so important in the sector, with some great ideas and great people out there.

“I am proud to be part of British farming because of the community and also proud to produce Scottish lamb and Scottish beef that I produce to the best of my ability as sustainably as I can.”


One of the first projects identified by the monitor farm group at Girtridge was improving grass utilisation. This led to the rotational platform being established and the switch to a more grass focused system, an increase in flock size and change in sheep breeding decisions.

Ewe numbers have increased significantly from a 140-ewe predominantly Mule and Texel cross flock to the 480 ewes, plus 120 hoggs which went to the tup last autumn.

John opted to start working with Innovis breeds as he was expanding, with the flock now mostly made up of Aberfield cross ewes which are bred to be suited to a grass-based system.

“We initially grew the flock by buying in Aberfield gimmers which worked well. Last year we decided to close the flock to get a better handle on disease control and retained our own ewe lamb replacements.

“We decided to lamb those as hoggs this spring which is the first time we’ve ever lambed hoggs on-farm and I’m pleased with how it’s going. So far, it is something we would do again next year.”

Aberfield hoggs were put to the Primera, while the main ewe flock goes to either the Aberfield ram to breed replacements or the Abermax to produce finishing lambs.

The April lambing flock was previously lambed inside but this has switched to an outdoor system more recently, initially after an issue with enzootic abortion, but is something John is keen to continue with because of the generally positive impact it has had on the flock.

Lambs are finished off grass and will generally start getting away from mid- August. The majority are sold through ScotBeef, targeting 21kg deadweight at mainly R3Ls. Heavier lambs hitting in the region of 44kg liveweight are sold through the ring at Ayr market.

A rotational grazing platform for the sheep was developed during the three years John spent on the monitor farm programme. In year three, 2019, it had developed into a 12ha (30-acre) block which supported the entire 300-ewe flock as it was at this point.

The platform is still in place, alongside some extra grazing now the flock as expanded.

Sheep with lambs at foot go onto the rotation once lambs are about a month old, stocked at 10 ewes to the acre on two-day shifts during the grazing season from mid-May to October.

“With sheep numbers increasing to 500-head last summer, I split the flock in half. Half grazed on the 30-acre rotational block and the other half closer to the farm steading, rotated loosely field by field, mostly following the cattle.”


Having previously monitored grass growth using a sward stick, John was recently able to purchase a plate metre with help from the Sustainable Agriculture Capital Grant Scheme.

With more accurate grass growth figures, John is hoping to be able turn more attention to improving the cattle’s utilisation of grass this season.

Elsewhere on the farm and time spent on the monitor farm programme also prompted some changes to the cattle enterprise, including investment in cattle handling and housing facilities with greater efficiency in-mind.

The farm finishes about 260-head of cattle per year, with suckled calves hitting 400kg bought-in at a year old as well as dairy bred calves which can be closer to 14 or 15 months old at the time of purchase.

Alongside dispersal of a mixed breed suckler herd of 10 cows, improving handling systems and linking electronic identification (EID) tagging with performance monitoring in cattle has helped Girtridge to improve cattle performance as well as operator safety.

A weigh kit, including weigh head, loadbars and dose gun, was installed with help from funding associated with the monitor farm programme while an auto EID ultra high frequency reading system was also incorporated, initially as part of an industry-led pilot trial investigating the use of EID technology.

John says: “Cattle weights are automatically recorded and listed every time animals go through the handling system; we’ve gone from using pen and paper to  record this information to it being sent straight to my phone which has saved a lot of time.”


The automatic drench gun feature is also proving useful. This calibrates with the weigh head to administer product treatment to the exact dosage according to the animal’s weight and has resulted in efficiency and cost savings, as animals are getting accurate doses of product.

Handling facilities have also been upgraded, with what had been a makeshift area penned in by tractors and other machinery now fully-concreted with gates and other infrastructure in place.

Finished cattle are sold roughly every three weeks through the year to either Stoddart’s at Ayr or Highland Meats in the main, while a proportion of the suckled calves will be marketed through the live ring at Lanark market.

Looking ahead and John says he is keen to continue to expand the sheep flock, although is conscious of getting to the point where ground availability will become a restriction and is exploring options to overcome this at the moment.

He is also keen to make the cattle enterprise work harder by continuing to refine his system. This year he has planted 7ha (17 acres) of spring beans for the first time, which will hopefully offset some feed costs as a homegrown protein source for cattle.

Investing in farm management software to collate information is also something John hopes to do in the year future, although he does run his own spreadsheet at present which records cattle information in the main.

“Keeping an eye on efficiencies and making improvements wherever we can is crucial to making sure we are doing the best we can, especially when margins are so tight.”