Our new Management Matters farm in Wales is turning heads with its low-input, low-cost philosophy. Robert Davies reports

The unique flock-management system run by Aled Jones at Tregeiriog Farm is starting to attract wider interest.

“It is different from the way other hill units are run, and it’s fair to say that some people are pretty sceptical,” says Prys Morgan, industry development manager at Meat Promotion Wales.

“But the system is working well and, by controlling production costs, the farm has been delivering reasonable margins at a time when others have not.”

Mr Jones is responsible for the day to day management as a contract shepherd but has a profit-sharing agreement with landowner Rupert Greenwell. He admits this is a great incentive to make the system work.

Improving profitability

“We set out to develop a flexible, low-input, low-cost system. This means we remain receptive to new ideas that might improve profitability,” he says.

“Nothing is set in stone and we are happy to have a lively discussion group linked to the farm.”

Management at Tregeiriog exploits the fact that the large area of land available allows for stock to be shut out of fields in late summer to provide winter grazing.

This is helped by keeping the stocking rate to only 0.6 livestock units/hectare and by selling all finished and store lambs, and crossbred breeding ewes, by late September.

Hay access

The breeding flock and ewe lambs have access to the equivalent of a standing hay crop all winter, so no hay or silage has to be conserved.

But a small amount of hay is purchased for feeding in bad weather. So too is some good quality barley straw for ewes that start the winter with low condition scores, or are carrying triplets.

These are the only ewes lambed indoors, and receive up to 1kg a head a day of concentrate feed to supplement the straw.

Meanwhile, from Christmas onwards, sheep grazing the land that was isolated get access to feed blocks. Ewes carrying twins get softer, higher specification blocks than those with singles and the 300 empty ewe lambs.

“Ewes are scanned and grouped according to condition score and the number of lambs they are carrying. The right food has to go to the right mouths to keep production costs in check, while optimising output,” says Mr Jones.

Genetics

The system has seen Tregeiriog’s lambing percentage grow from 125% to 145% over the past five years, though improved genetics have also helped.

Costs are also lower. It would require 650 silage bales, or half a bale a ewe, to keep 1300 breeding ewes for 90 days between January and March. Making these would cost about £8450.

During the same period last winter Mr Jones used an average of 27t of feed blocks, which cost £7020, a saving of £1500.

“Our system cuts the machinery and labour costs associated with winter feeding and reduces the environmental impact. We have the advantage of having a very dry farm.

“And the quality of deferred grazing throughout the winter compares favourably with silage made by members of our discussion group.”

Sward management

Mr Jones’ system depends on good sward management. Weeds are controlled without harming clover by using a weed wiper or spot dressing with herbicide, and pasture is improved with grass harrows in the spring.

A trial is under way to assess the cost effectiveness of introducing clover seed after harrowing. While the clover content of swards is good, it is mostly the less productive wild white variety, rather than newer, improved alternatives.

Abandoning silage and hay conservation has reduced the removal of potash and phosphate and no fertiliser has been used in recent years. Soil samples have been taken to assess whether some needs to be applied this year.

Mr Jones is also considering applying a limited amount of nitrogen after next spring’s harrowing to kick-start the growth of grass for ewes and lambs.

Grazing

Summer growth is controlled by providing grazing for up to 200 cattle owned by five neighbouring farmers, who pay weekly headage charges from mid-May to early-October.

These cattle are valuable non-selective toppers of pasture before it is shut off for deferred winter grazing. Occasionally surplus grass in fields is offered to neighbours for conservation in return for a dressing of phosphate and potash.

Renting grazing for cattle helps control internal parasites, but sheep still need to be drenched. A FECPAK faecal egg counting kit, which is shared by discussion group members, is used to do this effectively and economically.

Most of the ewes in the flock are Beulahs, of which 300 to 400 are pure bred. Another 350 are put to Bluefaced Leicester tups, about 300 run with Inverdale Texels and 300 yearlings are covered by Lleyn rams.

While some of the crossbred ewe lambs are retained for breeding, around 350 are sold privately. Mule lambs generally sell well but the price does fluctuate year on year. Mr Jones hopes that introducing the Inverdale gene will boost the lambing percentage of the ewe lambs and provide a fixed price.

Finishing lambs

Mr Jones is also attempting to finish the male crossbred lambs and the 250 Texel-Beulah-cross lambs. He uses both live and deadweight outlets.

Those that are not ready by the time fields are closed off for winter grazing will be sold as stores, mostly to the same buyer.

“In simple terms, we are trying to produce finished lambs that realise £40 a head with the minimum of input costs, and crossbred females selling for around £50 a head.”

Mr Jones aims to achieve a 150% lambing percentage and continue improving flock genetics and health, pasture management and sheep marketing to keep the business well in the black