Six years ago Randal entered into a partnership with his father Edmund after a former 1,000 acre arable farm had been split into two units. He had previously been running Mules building up from 60 to 600. The challenge is how to farm a large sheep flock on a good arable farm, with minimum labour.
Background To Sheep System
Sheep numbers on the system have been built up to circa 3,500 ewes and ewe lambs. Severe weather in 2012 and a difficult winter has encouraged Randall to move to a single lambing date, probably early April to maximise output and minimise labour. The flock now consists of highly prolific Mule and Mule x Highlander ewes.
Every year ewe lambs are sourced from top north of England flocks in Hawes and Lazonby with 250 – 300 purchased mainly from a limited number of sources. Larger ewe lambs are tupped, it being thought the extra amount paid being worthwhile when it enables them to be mated in their first year. However replacement cost is high and Highlander rams have been used for the last 4 years to produce 200 – 500 Highlander x Mule ewe lambs that are also mated as ewe lambs.
These highly prolific ewes produce over 200% lambs scanned, with a third of the ewe lambs producing twins there are insufficient ewes with singles for cross fostering and cade lambs having to be reared on artificial milk. Too many triplet ewes lamb in the first 10 days with not enough singles for cross fostering.
There have been several problems with E.coli, watery mouth and losses both before and after weaning.
Randall is interested in moving to a more easy care system and the objective of the meeting wa to look at aspects of this which could be applied on this farm.
Areas For Discussion
1. Replacement policy.
Discussion on losses from scanning to sale to identify the optimum scanning percentage for a large flock, currently feels too many triplets are being born and lost.
Discussion on alternative merits of Mule, Highlander x Mule, New Zealand Suffolk x and other breeds. Current crossbred system relies on hybrid vigour but would like direct selection for easy care traits. Having an open flock means the farm is at risk from buying in OPA, MV, CODD and CLA, anyone of these long term conditions can seriously reduce flock profitability. 15% of Gloucestershire farms have MV or OPA so this is a serious issue locally. The farm has good biosecurity and it would be an advantage to close the flock to female replacements.
2. Sustainability of grass based systems.
A grass based system is essential with lambs finished off grass and forages and they would like to discuss reseeding options within an all grass farm. We will see a demonstration of Johnny Watson’s Castlehill mixtures established after winter wheat and can discuss alternative winter forage crops including red clover and forage brassicas. It would be advantageous if we could identify a clover based system for the farm to reduce nitrogen usage.
3. Lamb finishing.
We will look at a crop of rape/kale hybrid variety Interval, established in June after Round-Up treatment of runout grass sward. Although established in June this was drought affected but has since recovered. Discuss grazing policy and how a forage brassica crop can be useful in replacement sward practice.
4. Ram purchase.
Charollais rams (40 sourced from Neil Oughton at Montgomery), Suffolk, Highlander and teasers are used at 40:1. The Suffolk and Charollais are purchased on the basis of EBVs, looking for muscle depth having first identified rams of the correct type. Also selecting for negative fat cover, but as lambs need to be finished off grass need to review.
5. Shearing discussion.
All the later born lambs are shorn in August as this has been shown to improve grazing efficiency and lamb finishing. Discuss the benefits of shearing small lambs in August and should they shear all their ewes twice per year as the Highlander x ewes are producing around 3.5 – 4 kg of wool per head per year. It’s been a difficult year for flystrike. Pour-ons are not working effectively but shearing is very effective from flystrike perspective. Review abattoir practices on deductions for shorn lambs.
6. Sheep handling.
Recently installed a Combiclamp which has been very suitable and useful for crutching, but is interested in views on the new DrenchMaster system which is more suitable for the larger flock. Currently he has been using a mobile Pratley system to reduce problems associated with handling ewes for footrot, which is another area for discussion.
7. Wintering systems.
Currently a lot of ewes are wintered off farm on dairy grass and they have been working with some frequent moving of sheep systems based on Rappa fencing and is keen to explore the potential of this both to control condition on ewes post weaning and to help spin out grass in the summer. We intend to open a discussion on the cost of wintering systems where members are invited to compare the cost of feed, delivery of the feed (labour) and replacement cost of equipment used. The purpose is to identify least cost wintering feeding systems.
Edmund and Randal have thrown down a good challenge to identify how to cut costs and improve productivity on the larger sheep farm. Current practices are not working to the optimum and they are looking to significantly improve output and reduce the labour inputs. This is an excellent area of discussion of relevance to all members of the group and we do hope you come along and share your experiences in what promises to be a lively discussion.