Aled Jones’ policy of not conserving summer grass as winter fodder is making it difficult to manage the abundant grass available.
“When Farmers Weekly last visited in April, we were worryingly short of grazing. But conditions have gone from famine to feast and we are even topping some fields where grass has headed,” he says.
Fortunately, it is mostly weed grasses like Crested Dog’s-tail that have gone to seed first, so the topper blade can be set high, leaving ryegrasses and flourishing clover untouched.
“Ideally, we need a serious number of cattle for about a month, but few farmers seem to want to pay for short-term grazing this year. Perhaps this is a reflection of the poor margins in store cattle finishing.”
Sward condition is worst on 150 acres of species-rich, semi-natural rough grazing, where the farm’s Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme bans cutting or grazing for another month, to protect nesting lapwings and curlews.
The area was grazed hard by weaned ewes last autumn to rest the fields that were expected to provide deferred grazing in the winter. The herbage has recovered very well and the area will be used in the same way this year.
All grazing swards are growing well after a very difficult spring when sheep had to be moved frequently to find enough grass. Fortunately, when cull ewes were sold to ease grazing pressure, they realised a very satisfactory £35.50 a head.
Things were so tight in April and May that Mr Jones even considered whether the unusual management policy should be tweaked.
“We came to the conclusion that in an average season we would be worse off missing early markets by lambing later. Applying fertiliser to get earlier grass would not be cost effective, especially now that the price has gone up so much, and we cannot justify the cost of making hay or silage.
“We just have to accept that there will be the odd year like this one when a bit more will have to be spent on feed blocks.”
Despite the problems, the first batch of 32 finished lambs was ready at about the same time as in 2007. But a dip in market prices meant they were not taken to Oswestry market until a week later. The heaviest weighed 42kg before loading.
At sale, 23 lambs averaged 37kg and sold for £56.50/head. On average, the other 9 tipped the scales at 31kg and realised £45/head.
Mr Jones was very pleased with the returns and hopes that the market stays strong for the sale of his next batch on the last Wednesday in June.
He believes that all marketing options need support and cannot foresee a time when some lambs will not be sold on the hoof.
With five similarly-minded friends, he recently arranged a meeting with 20 other producers to discuss the idea of forming a deadweight marketing group to supply a leading abattoir operator.
“I think 15 of us will test the water this year by sending some loads to Dunbia. But we have not managed to get the company to agree a fixed price, which is what we are really looking for.”
Generally, sheep are looking well, though the flush of grass growth over the past month caused some ewes to get a bit daggy. Lambs have been wormed twice and stayed very clean.
A formalin footbath has been in regular use to tackle a higher than usual incidence of foot problems, especially scald.
All lambs are growing well, but Mr Jones is especially pleased with the progress of the 280 ewe lambs produced by the 400 ewes put to Inverdale Texel tups.
These will be sold when they weigh at least 34kg to Innovis, the company that supplied the rams. The 2008 guaranteed price is £48 a head. “Last year we got £46 for a 34kg ewe lamb at a time when the average finished lamb price was just 80p/kg.”
A successful inspection means that all lambs sold will be farm assured for the fourth successive year. The check-up cost £85 plus VAT, but Mr Jones is convinced it was money well spent, not least because it involved an independent assessment of flock management.
The increase in the value of wool meant he could justify employing shearing contractors this year rather than trying to clip as many as he could himself.
“The British Wool Marketing Board estimates that we should get £878 for the 2000kg wool clip this year, compared with £265 in 2007. This has allowed most of the work to be done by a team of three prize-winning shearers.”
His contact with the contractors and other farmers has revealed how worried they are about potential impact of bluetongue. “Almost everyone is ready to inject and very concerned about the delayed delivery of extra vaccine for Wales.”
And the recent arrival of a new daughter means that Aled and his partner Jane now have four children to cope with – and will have little time to prepare some of her small flock of Bluefaced Leicesters for the summer show circuit.