Martin Fletcher explained his many clever management techniques that have evolved with his easy care sheep system.
The farm consists of 1800 acres and operates an 8 year rotation system with 290 acres being grassland for the sheep which are needed to maintain fertility for arable crops on thin South Down soils
The rotation is: 2year grass with 10% clover leys. Arable crops include peas, OSR, wheat and barley undersown with grass.
Organic matter in the thin soils over chalk as a result of 40 years grazing with sheep are over 8% resulting in first year wheat yields
over 10 ton /ha. This year, which was dry, saw the benefit of the high soil organic matter. Continuous arable farming can reduce soil organic matter to around 4% - whilst this allows predictable responses from inorganic fertiliser inputs it does not maximise productivity. Arable soils that have been continuously cropped have great capacity to act as carbon sinks –locking away greenhouse gasses and mitigating the methane emissions of ruminants. There is a great opportunity for more widespread use of sheep on arable rotations that are suffering from sustainability issues due to blackgrass invasion and a restricted range of herbicides being allowed under EU regulation. But the sheep must be less work to be attractive to the arable farmer.
A former manager – Harry Ridley (of Ridley Rappa fame) pioneered Mule sheep. Martin found these too much work and set about breeding his own easy care flock of Lleyns. A high soil pH of above 8.0 on the farm, which overlies chalk, resulted in severe hypomagnesaemia for unfed outdoor lambing sheep. This held up the development of the easy care system until the availability of long term and short term magnesium boluses given to ewes at lambing. Shearling ewes which can not be caught at lambing are given long term boluses pre- lambing and perform well with that. However ewes caught last year are getting wise and are more difficult to catch now. This large Lleyn flock are different to handle to Mules –they stand up to the dog and do not flock so readily or move easily in pens. Huntaway dogs may be needed on some farms to move them easily.
All 1,700 ewes lamb outside on grass with a staff of 3 New Zealand shepherds for 3 weeks. This is a high labour input for an easy care system but all the lambs have to be caught, tagged and matched up to ewes for pedigree records. Lambing ease and mothering ability are recorded in addition to Signet records. Shearwell electronic tags were put into lambs, adult sheep also have
electronic tags and prior to lambing were given a RD2000 cattle tag on elastic around the ewes neck for easy distance reading, these tags being removed at shearing. Now Fearing tags from NZ that are distance readable are being used. Prior to lambing all these tag numbers are linked to the electronic tag number so that the hand held reader can be used to tie up lambs to ewes.
Farm IT 3000 from Borders Software Tools is used to handle records for management purposes and to download files. In total 3,000 animals are performance recorded every year. Signet are being approached with regard to processing records for the production of EBVs on which to make future selection decisions.
Ewes with high EBVs and no production problems form an elite nucleus mob mated to top maternal EBV rams. Some of these were sourced from the McGowan’s Incheoch on-farm auction before the flock was closed. Poorer ewes go to terminal sires.
Martin has used Meatlinc, Hampshire and Primera rams, finding the later produced faster growing easier finished lambs. These sell off grass and hybrid brassicas at 40 Kg live (18.8 kg carcase).
Clean two-year leys reduce drench usage aided by frequent faecal egg counts used to make the drench decision. Shearlings are given a full crutch 3 weeks pre-lambing to reduce dags and flystrike, ewes are not crutched and protected with Clik. No orphan lambs are raised but wet fostering is done in the field where possible. The first group of lambs and ewes visited were set-ons and appeared well bonded. The Bob Blandon idea of lambing single ewes needing a foster lamb into a flexible builders’ bucket- as sold at garden centres- has proved worthwhile. Lambs are mixed and left in the bucket finding it difficult to escape due to the high
slippery flexible sides. Later on the lambs are released and the bucket retrieved.
Prior to turnout onto saved pastures sheep are fed a silage based TMR on four sacrifice fields. Prolific ewes are negatively flushed
down to a condition score 2 ½ to keep scanning percentage down to 185 – 190%. 200 ram lambs from the elite flock are allowed to be challenged by worms and only the best 20 showing strong resilience are bred from. Estimated feed savings from lambing outside were over £10 although the boluses cost £2. The biggest change has been that the sheep are now much less work.
Surplus Lleyn ewe lambs are popular with other producers looking for easy care sheep; this year there are over a dozen shearling Lleyn rams also to sell.
There is a huge selection pressure in this flock for easy care traits, whilst production potential has been maintained by using high index rams and Signet recording. Some connectivity has been lost as the original tag numbers were not kept as full Signet recording was not in the initial game plan. Thus it will be a couple of years before the accuracy of the production EBV’s emerge meanwhile however Martyn can be confident overall that breeding is going in the right direction.
For farmers interested in recording and EID issues John Vipond has enclosed additional material.