Romney maternal traits key to flock success
Strong, maternal ewes form the bedrock of any successful sheep enterprise and nowhere is this more evident that at Pickney Bush Farm, Newchurch, where the 850-ewe flock produces prime lambs which regularly lead the prices at Ashford market.
A total of 350 acres of grassland at the family farm carry the flock with the use of top quality genetics and strong grass and feed management helping produce top quality prime lambs from a flock which is split into three lambing groups, explains Helen Langrish.
“We lamb in three batches to ease the workload and allow us to concentrate on the job in hand. The first batch of 200 lamb from February 20 onwards and are the older ewes generally on their last lambing.
“Then on 14 March we start the second batch of 350 ewes and on 5 April a further 100 pure Romneys are lambed. The 200 tegs are lambed just after the Romneys to allow them specific attention when required.”
Peak prices in recent years have seen lambs from the flock sell at up to £115 a head at Ashford Market and lambs from the farm are in heady demand from buyers eager to source quality lambs.
Lambing is all undertaken indoors to maximise the number of lambs reared. “Indoor lambing may have increased costs compared to outdoor lambing, but the benefits are there for both man and beast.”
And while many flocks may rely on a continual criss-crossing of breeds to produce quality lamb, for Mrs Langrish, there are only two breeds to worry about.
“The base flock is Romney and is the source of all the female replacements for the crossbred flock. A portion of these are bred pure, while the remainder are put to Texel tups.”
“But the influence of the Romney on the female line shouldn’t be underestimated. The Romney is a hardy ewe and has been bred to withstand the local environment.
“The Romney gives the base to the female line and the Texel which gives us the conformation in our prime lambs and increases the lambing percentage of the flock. It crosses well with the Romney as both are hardy breeds which hold their flesh well and don’t need acres of lush pasture to thrive.”
The hardwearing, adaptable nature of the Texel cross ewe means they are long-lasting and even when they have served their time at Pickney Bush Farm they earn good money as cull ewes at Ashford. “The early lambing flock is all older ewes and for most of these it is their last time lambing. So, they are generally sold a few weeks after their lambs, their ability to retain flesh and do well of little grass helps this policy, as does creep feeding the lambs.”
All lambs are creep fed from about eight weeks old to ensure they finish quickly and it is a strategy that clearly works for the flock. “Without creep feeding our lambs would certainly be slower coming forward and the ewes would be worn out quicker.”
However, once the trade has started to slow in mid-summer creep feed is withdrawn and selling slows until the autumn. “We tend to run the rest of the lambs round as stores and it is generally October before we start selling again.
“That’s another advantage of this type of lamb. They can handle a store period and still come fit for market quickly again when they are pushed on a bit more.”
Mrs Langrish says the base Romney portion in the flock is central to its success, with the maternal ability of the Romney ewe coming through in their daughters and granddaughters. “The Romney is a great mother and her lambs have the ability to thrive on lower quality grass which is a trait which should never be underestimated. She’s an adaptable, versatile ewe which crosses well with a number of breeds.
Double shearing lifts flock output
Twice yearly shearing may seem like making hard work of sheep farming, but for Castle Douglas-based Romney breeders Marcus and Kate Maxwell it’s made flock management far simpler and improved ewe performance to boot.
Mr Maxwell says he first saw flocks shorn twice a year in New Zealand where it is common practice to shear ewes ahead of lambing. “With our climate that wasn’t an option for our outdoor lambed flock, but I was sure there was something to be gained from doing it.”
The Viewfield flock is largely based on New Zealand Romney genetics, having been founded with UK Romney ewes and then bred up with imported semen, and is farmed on an easier care system with minimal intervention. “We aim to let the sheep look after themselves and try to make the most of grazed grass rather than concentrate feed, although in spring 2013 we have had to feed concentrates due to the poor grass growth over winter as a result of an early cold snap in September 2012.”
The April lambing flock is shorn first in early-mid June, when the flock has traditionally always been shorn, with the second shearing taking place a few months later, ideally towards the end of August or early September. “If we were in a drier, warmer part of the UK I’d aim to shear in October, but with the wet, cold climate here at Castle Douglas I wouldn’t want to risk shearing that late as it could have an adverse affect on ewes going to the tup.”
He says the change in ewe behaviour and performance in the two years that the flock has been twice-yearly shorn has been dramatic with the scanning rate increasing by 10% to 187% for the 2012 lambing and ewes maintaining condition far better throughout the year. “Ewes are far more eager to graze for longer when they’re not carrying a big heavy fleece and so eat more and gain condition quicker through the autumn. “They also held onto their condition better through the winter, largely I suspect because they were able to keep warmer and drier as the fleece wasn’t holding as much moisture as a full fleece would do.”
And while some may question the cost of shearing a second time Mr Maxwell says that with Romney wool of significant value compared to many breeds it stacks up financially too. “Like a lot of farmers we always crutched our ewes before tupping and that could cost 75-80p/head.
“With shearing costing just over £1/head the price difference is more than made up for in the value of the second fleece and we’re undoubtedly yielding more wool this way than on a traditional once a year shearing system.”
On top of that he believes it has made flock management easier as there is less chance of ewes becoming stuck on their backs and it is easier to monitor ewe body condition without a full fleece on them. “Ewes also thrive far better in spring without a full fleece and seem to gain condition far quicker than they might otherwise do.”
The Maxwells also shear their lambs in their first summer too in order to encourage better growth and ease winter management. “All our prime lambs are sold by October, but the ewe lambs we retain are outwintered on the farm. Lambs are generally shorn in July, with the smaller-middle end wether lambs then grazed on a forage crop such as Swift. The change in growth rate once they’re shorn is noticeable and the overwintered ewe lambs keep far cleaner than if they were in full fleece,” adds Mr Maxwell.
New entrant strikes sheep success
High land prices, limited access to investment funds and the single farm payment are just some of the reasons many young people find it difficult to get started in farming.
However, one Kent-based couple have proved that with a bit of determination coupled with ingenuity and willingness to think outside the box, there’s no reason why their dream of farming in their own right cannot be fulfilled.
For Woodchurch-based Edward and Gemma Lovejoy the aspiration to farm has been cemented into reality by hard work and a flexible approach to land tenure. The sheep farming enterprise, which also encompasses a hay and straw supply business and contracting services, is based around 650 ewes run on 105ha of permanent grassland all taken on annual lets, explains Mr Lovejoy.
“We don’t own any land and have very little security of tenure on most of it, but it’s a system that works on mutual trust and respect. “Many of our landlords have entered their land into environmental schemes to maximise their income from their land.
“While this can be a disadvantage it does mean we get access to land which otherwise we may not have the opportunity of. As a result we farm in line with the scheme rules and help the landlords abide by the agreements.”
Having no single farm payment also means the Lovejoys have to be focused in the approach they take to sheep farming. “We operate a relatively low input system with the bulk of the lambing done outside in April to coincide with grass growth. “The ewe flock is based on Romneys which are able to thrive off the lower quality grass we have available and these are put to Suffolk and Texel rams to maximise the value in the lambs.
“We also run a 60 ewe flock of Poll Dorsets with some bred pure and the rest crossed. This early lambing flock enables us to spread the cash flow from lamb sales further through the season, providing a valuable income at what can be a quiet time for the sheep enterprise.”
The battle to gain a foothold on the farming ladder has seen the Lovejoys gradually expand their sheep flock to its current size from a small start, with a number of other flocks also managed under a variety of different agreements. “Contracting and the provision of labour to other farmers has formed an important part of the business, enabling investment in machinery and equipment at the same time as providing work in some quieter months.”
And while sheep farming may not be the desired route for many young people the Lovejoys believe it offers an entry route to farming at a lower cost than many other enterprises. “Costs can be kept to a minimum, particularly running an outdoor lambing flock and the return on the investment can be quite quick compared to some enterprises.
“With sheep farming your first crop of lambs can be for sale as little as eight months after you buy your breeding stock. With suckler cows the payback is much longer and sheep are better able to use the lower quality grassland which is often all that’s available to new entrants in many areas.” Mr Lovejoy makes no bones about his eventual aspirations either, eagerly anticipating the day he can buy his own block of land to use as a base for his operations.
“We’re happy with the way we run our business at the moment with a number of landlords, but we really need a base to operate from that we can call our own.”
Looking further ahead he is keen to help other new entrants wherever possible and believes his model can be improved upon by the adoption of share farming agreements in the livestock sector. “It’s common practice in New Zealand and gives young people a chance to earn a stake in a business even though they may have no capital to invest initially.
“We were lucky to find the breaks we did and we had a small pot of savings which helped get us started. But without that we wouldn’t have been able to afford to start the sheep enterprise or invest in machinery and equipment, which have been the backbone of the business.
“Share farming could be a win:win situation for many farmers with no successors. It gives young people a chance to enter the business and because they are working to build up their stake in a business they are likely to be more committed to its success than an employee might be.
“For the business owner it provides an ideal opportunity to step back from active farming while also retaining some control over their land and assets.”
Mr Lovejoy says his business has thrived as a result of working with farmers with no successor wanting to take the farm on, but who don’t want to give up their land or farming interest. “We’ve not got any share farming agreements as such, but we are helping some of our landlords to manage their own flocks alongside our own sheep, often taking care of day to day management for them.”
One of the most recent additions to the business is a contract management agreement for a further 800 ewes for another client. “This is a new flock set up in summer 2012 and has recently expanded following a good first year.
“This type of arrangement works well for both parties, for ourselves as contractors it helps spread the workload, with this flock lambing in February when our own sheep work is quiet. And for the owner it takes some of the workload and management away from them, allowing them to concentrate on the rest of their business which is a diverse farming enterprise.”
In time Mr Lovejoy is looking for opportunities to expand his own sheep numbers past 1000 ewes with the aim then of employing a shepherd to manage the sheep flocks while he can concentrate on growing the other aspects of the business, including the contract flock management, hay and straw sales and contract farming work, including fencing and pasture management.
“In time I want to increase the output of our flock through increasing flock prolificacy by breeding. We only retain ewe lambs born as twins and we are looking at New Zealand Romney genetics in order to gain a quick boost to lamb numbers, ” he explains.
“However, with much of our ground being lower input grassland we still want to maintain an easier care system, so while increasing lamb numbers is a priority it won’t be done at the expense of easier care traits or with sheep which cost more to manage. “Maintaining good feet and overall good condition from lower inputs while boosting lamb numbers to about 165% is the aim as this is the best way to maximise profits from our system.”
Mr Lovejoy is confident there is a future in the sheep industry for himself and others like him. “Increasing population and growing demand for meat mean there has to be a future in livestock farming. The challenge is to find ways of breaking into farming which allow youngsters the chance to thrive and farm in their own right in an age when access to land and finance is, for many people, difficult.”
Cell grazing for all-grass wintering
Paddock or cell grazing systems have long been the favoured method of maximising production from grass for dairy farmers, but an EBLEX supported trial in Cornwall in winter 2011-12 suggests they could suit sheep farming too.
SAC sheep specialist John Vipond says the trial which saw 950 Romney ewes grazing paddocks and moved on a daily basis to avoid excessive sward damage, was a resounding success and points to a new direction for sheep management.
“In 2011 in many parts of England and Wales more grass grew in the winter months than the summer months due to drought, this presented an excellent opportunity for sheep farmers to extend the grazing season and reduce costs.” Cornish sheep farmer Dave Sanders believed he could capitalise on the region’s milder winters by outwintering his ewes on grass, helping reduce both feed costs and labour use, explains Mr Vipond.
“The all-grass wintering system was devised using cell grazing on a long rotation, with ewes grazing the cells from November 2011 to March 2012 on the farm at Helland, Bodmin. Grass was set aside as a wedge prior to tupping to start the winter rotation and following grazing, winter grass growth of 10kg/ha was measured. Together this pregrazing wedge and the subsequent winter growth maintained 950 NZ Romney ewes on 110 ha (272 acres).”
The only additional feed required was 11kg/head of grass silage, says Mr Sanders. “This resulted in only 19 out of 800 bales of silage being fed, leaving a surplus stock of silage which could be sold for a profit.” Mr Vipond says the cell grazing system employed by Mr Sanders is better than deferred grazing systems as it allows grass recovery and uses fresher grass growth,
resulting in higher quality forage.
“And at the end of the rotation ewes can be set stocked for lambing on newly grown grass on areas grazed at the beginning of the winter rotation. This system and variations of it have been successfully run in NZ for many years and have proved highly effective.
“The trend for warmer, wetter winters has extended the range of potential wintering areas in the UK and increased the number of farms able to operate outwintering systems in this manner. It is suitable for outdoor lambing flocks in areas with grass growth of 5-10kg dm/ha/day.” However, there are some hurdles to be overcome before the system can be widely used in the UK, he adds. “In many areas soils are not capable of handling the high stock rates associated with this type of system without significant pollution risk and sward damage. There may also be some breed challenges to be overcome, with possibly not all breeds able to survive under this type of system.
“Attention to feet problems, having correct teeth and a recognition that there will be increased parasite challenge have to be dealt with too.
“Farmers also have to get to grips with pasture dry matter assessment techniques using the falling plate meter or swardstick and do feed budgets so they do not run out of grass. The technical fencing and sheep moving jobs are relatively straightforward, but care needs to be exercised when moving groups larger than 1000 ewes to avoid smothering.”
Ewes were stocked at densities of up to 950 ewes/ha (385/acre) with daily shifts, explains Mr Sanders. “There is no doubt that this high stocking rate increases the risk of spreading some contagious diseases and can lead to higher parasite burdens. However, no health issues emerged and we use a Fecpak kit to regularly monitor worm egg counts, so were able to keep an eye on egg counts throughout the grazing period.
“Changes in ewe condition at the start of the rotation were clearly visible in autumn shorn ewes and body condition scoring was also used when ewes were handled at scanning (70 days) and when vaccinating at four weeks pre-lambing for clostridial disease. Two tooth replacements were run separately. “We soon found daily shifts allowed more days per paddock and the sheep adjusted to moving well, soon becoming more calm and workable. “Having the right sheep for the system is clearly important and from the 950 ewes originally put on to the paddocks we removed 45 which were failing to maintain condition score as we’d have liked. These will be put to a terminal sire this year.”
The major bonus of the system is the amount of time saved working with sheep in the winter, adds Mr Sanders. “We found that we could set up a week’s worth of paddock fencing in half a day, allowing us to feed 950 ewes in 15 minutes. And, importantly, the fields grazed in the first week of the rotation had as much grass on them in spring as if we hadn’t grazed them.”
A preliminary study of the potential effect on profit by SAC economist Robert Logan suggested an increased profit of up to £25/ewe from adopting the system and Mr Sanders now intends to continue with the system and extend it to all of his flock, adds Dr Vipond. “The data collected from this trial suggests that most lowland farms in areas where grass growth occurs for more than 270 days/year should be capable of growing on average 5kg/ha/day and capable of all grass wintering,” he says.