The benefits of scanning hill flocks more than outweigh the costs, according to Hybu Cig Cymru.

The Welsh meat promotion agency is currently working with scanners to assess how many hill flocks do scan and how the information is used.

The aim is to demonstrate how more precise feeding of in-lamb ewes can cut costs and improve flock output.

Under single farm payment, farmers no longer have to comply with a ewe retention period, so can choose when to sell barren ewes.

By taking a look at the true weekly cost of keeping non-productive ewes until market conditions appear favourable, it should be possible to say whether early selling pays, says Prys Morgan, HCC’s industry development manager.

“The figure can be low where empty sheep are run on poor land, but could be as high as 60p/week when they are kept on good grass or rented grazing land.

“Barren ewes also eat grass that can be more efficiently used by ewes and lambs, so it can be better to sell early on a weak trade rather than wait for prices to improve.”

He also believes when potentially infertile ewes are kept cheaply farmers could be tempted to put them to the ram again.

In the first 11 months of 2005 ewe and ram slaughterings in Wales were 30% higher, which Mr Morgan believes indicates flockmasters are increasingly keen to get rid of non-productive sheep.

“They are already making changes in response to the ending of headage payments.

The industry is becoming more efficient and we expect many more hill farmers to recognise the advantages of scanning ewes.”

Contacts with farmers involved in the development programme suggest the 30p to 40p spent is easily recovered.

After one bad experience the Jones family of Blaenau farm near Lampeter were convinced of this fact nine years ago.

Ieu Jones, who farms 204ha carrying 1080 Tregaron Welsh ewes with his wife Buddug and grandson Gareth, had tried scanning some years before, but was disappointed with the accuracy.

Results proved much more satisfactory when another scanner was used and the partners now regard pregnancy scanning as an essential management tool on the unit, which is a Farming Connect demonstration farm.

This year barren ewes were sold soon after scanning in January.

Unfortunately many other producers did the same and prices were poor.

But having fewer mouths to feed reduced grazing pressure at a critical time.

“Next time we will probably follow the market more closely and possibly send our empty ewes up the mountain for a while,” says Ieu Jones.

After scanning, 250 ewes carrying Suffolk and Beltex-sired crossbred lambs, or purebred twins, stay on lower land, where they can be fed silage and concentrates.

Silage quality is given a high priority and the partners consistently ensile material with a metabolisible energy of 11MJ/kg or more.

Ewes carrying purebred single lambs are turned onto unimproved mountain land until lambing starts.

“There is plenty of foggage for them to graze and last year 187 stayed on land running up to 1400ft until the first three lambs were born in March,” recalls Ieu Jones.

They, like all the sheep, lambed outside and only nine required assistance, which was about normal for the whole flock.

“This is a hill flock and we want easy births rather than a high lambing percentage, so we tup ewes on the top land without flushing.

On average we sell or retain 117 lambs from every 100 ewes scanned.

“It is important to know which ewes are carrying more than one lamb so we can feed them properly and keep a close eye on them at lambing time.”

Lambs are weaned at the start of August. Most finish off grass at about 17.5kg deadweight, though 80 had access to rape.

This helped the flock achieve a gross margin of 16,340 after accounting for 10,740 of forage costs.

“Most hill farmers in this area now pregnancy scan and say the results are more than 95% accurate.

The single farm payment system has changed attitudes, now we all have to try to be as efficient as possible.”

bobdavies@agrinews.fsnet.co.uk