Early lambing can be costly with an increased need for feed, buildings and labour placing pressure on profits – exacerbated when market values are depressed. At Chillington Farm, Brewood, Stafford, the introduction of an easier care flock of Cheviot ewes running on poor pasture is helping improve income from sheep.

The aim is to minimise expenditure while maximising output per man and extend the duration of supply of farm-finished lambs to local butchers, explains Andrew Blenkiron of managing agent Smiths Gore. “Lambs from our Mules run through to March, but it’s too expensive to extend their supply from April to the end of May.

“An easier care system can fulfil that gap. I believe we have native breeds that can deliver what’s needed rather than a reliance on buying in so-called ‘easy’ care breeds, such as New Zealand Romneys.”

Maintaining confirmation

Time will tell. At Chillington, 280 pure-bred Cheviot draft ewes were purchased in 2006 and put to a North Country tup to maintain the breed’s characteristic confirmation suited to the business’ butcher customers. “The Cheviots run on an area of poorer pasture recently taken back in-hand and stocked at seven ewes an acre.

“These are only brought indoors for six weeks after scanning in early February. Essentially, this allows the pasture time to refresh so there’s a bite for ewes to return to before lambing.”

While indoors a small amount of a 20% protein/13ME concentrate is offered at 0.1kg a head for single and 0.15kg for twin bearing ewes, he explains. “Equally, they could be turned out onto roots such as stubble turnips to avoid the need for supplementary feeding and housing.”

Turnout

At turnout feed blocks supplement concentrates fed and hay offered ad-lib. “We find ewes move away from the blocks quickly as grass growth recovers Mules would keep eating adding to costs.”

One of the main claw backs for the easier care system is reduced labour. Mr Blenkiron and shepherd Tim Cooke divide up a thrice daily drive around the flock to monitor welfare. “Last year’s lamb crop saw only eight assisted lambing – due to large single lambs. Controlling concentrate accessed by single-bearing ewes should reduce this further.”

As to be expected, lamb percentage was below that of the main Mule flock – 130% versus 192%. Allowing for a similar lamb value of £45 a head that put gross margin at £39 a ewe and £47, respectively.

But it is the impact of fixed costs for each system that sees the easier care flock regain an advantage (see table).

Lowering costs

Labour costs along with forage, power and fuel, machinery (including depreciation), and finance charges are all lower. “Fixed costs play such a large part in assessing profitability, but too few producers actually work them out or divide sensibly between individual enterprises,” he says.

Net margin figures show Cheviots achieve -£18 a head versus -£32 a head for the Mule flock. “It should be possible to improve output. There’s no reason why the easier care flock cannot achieve a lambing of 150% pulling up gross margin to near £45 a head. As long as the associated costs – variable and fixed – are kept in sync a better return would be achieved.”

Replacement rate will also fall from a current 38% to nearer 20% achieved by the Mule flock as ewe lambs replace older draft Cheviot ewes reducing costs further.

Other costs also factor. “We know historically from records that forage, fuel and labour charges keep rising year-on-year, so this type of lower input, easier care system is worthy of consideration,” suggests Mr Blenkiron.

Management

But there is no room to allow management to falter. Even having rough, unimproved pasture to graze has seen some problems arise. The Cheviots have thrived and foot condition has to be watched closely.

With a lack-lustre lamb market prevailing, the need for capital investment in ewe housing for the easier care flock can also be minimised. Calculations suggest permanent buildings cost about £100 a ewe place (£20 a ewe for temporary/polytunnel systems) which – at today’s low margins – is hard to justify.

“However, in the longer term, the one element that does go against an easier care system is the ability to lift output markedly should lamb price recover.

“That aside, hill breeds use poor pasture beautifully and have already made a visible improvement to the off-lying ground occupied.

“For this farm it’s a good fit. I await with interest to see how the Cheviots scan this year as the Mule flock has shown more empty and fewer triplet-carrying ewes after a hard summer last year.

“Overall, the easier care system will not be to everyone’s advantage, but for us it looks promising.”

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