Rearing lambs indoors for the early market is a high-cost and risk-laden business and – to be successful – requires dedication, attention to detail and uptake of all the latest available technology.

In the case of Oxfordshire flock owner Tony Good, the system at Warborough Farm, Wantage, has been 30 years in the making, and – as both he and flock manager David Barber readily admit – the job continues to be a learning experience.

“We are constantly looking for ways to improve efficiency and overcome obstacles and it’s never easy, but we are delivering a quality product for a defined premium market and in general terms the enterprise is working well,” says Mr Good.

“We are selling lambs to an independent abattoir that supplies top-quality independent butchers. They supply the market for quality early lamb and the best prices are paid in the period leading up to June before the main supermarkets have the necessary volume to become involved. Therefore it’s imperative we maximise the numbers sold into these premium markets before mid-May.”

The 2000-ewe flock was established in the late 1970s from a Finnish Landrace/Polled Dorset cross, and is now entirely closed, with all replacements homebred from six family groups and homebred rams from one group used in rotation on ewes of another group.

Lamb

Warborough was one of the first flocks in the UK to use AI and this has benefited a breeding policy that has selected for prolificacy, earliness and conformation. Suffolk and Charollais terminal sires are bred on the farm from closed nucleus flocks.

“We continue to use AI on the early-lambing groups and achieved 80% conception rate this year on the 1400 that were bred to lamb over a 10-day period starting at the end of November. The remaining ewes and those that return are bred naturally to lamb from the middle of January,” says Mr Good.

Hectic period

With the overall lambing percentage (lambs born alive) from mature ewes typically at 210-220%, Mr Barber – plus one other full-time employee and an extra lambing assistant – face a hectic period over winter.

“The aim is for most ewes to rear two lambs, but ewes in ideal condition with an even group of triplets will rear three,” says Mr Barber. “We also maintain an early group rearing singles and these are sold straight off ewes from the end of February to help prime the market.

“Overall, we shall wet-foster many lambs over the whole lambing period and a proportion will also be reared on machines. Ultimately, the aim is to achieve the best possible growth rates from as many lambs as we can, at the least cost.”

Ewes scanned with triplets or more are fed outdoors from five weeks pre-lambing, about a week earlier than those bearing twins. All ewes come inside two weeks before lambing and receive a diet mix of silage, soya meal, molasses and minerals.

Disease protection

This ration continues after lambing and ewes’ intakes increase so they are on average eating the equivalent of 32-34MJ of metabolisable energy a day.

Ewes and lambs are individually penned for the first 24 hours when colostrum intake is monitored. Disease protection is of paramount importance in an intensive indoor system, so strict hygiene practices are complemented with navel dipping at birth and again in the pen (using iodine dissolved in surgical spirit) and all lambs receive medication at birth to prevent joint-ill and E coli infections. This is the only routine medication used.

While this regime keeps losses to a minimum, the search for even greater efficiency and better growth rates is ongoing. The flock is now in its second year of trials with a mannan oligosaccharide supplement (Bio-Mos from Alltech) included in lambs’ creep ration. This has been shown to improve gut health and have a positive effect on growth rates in other livestock species (calves and piglets, for example), particularly in the pre-weaning period.

Growth rates

In the Warborough study, 380 December-lambing ewes were assigned to one of two treatment groups, with an equal split of singles, twins and triplets between the groups and no significant difference in birth weights. Once turned out into their poly-tunnel rearing pens, this meant there were about 350 lambs receiving a creep ration and 350 receiving the same creep with 2kg/t of Bio-Mos added.

Growth rates were monitored through to weaning and lambs receiving the supplement had significantly higher daily weight gains and a greater total weight gain over the period. There were also numerically fewer treatments for pneumonia-type symptoms and less mortality due to disease in the group receiving Bio-Mos.

“We are already achieving growth rates of more than 200g a head a day in the pre-weaning period, and yet the figures show we were able to increase this by about 7%,” confirms Mr Barber. “These results suggest greater survival rates, earlier finishing and, therefore, more economic use of feed.”

The target is to finish lambs at 18-19kg carcass weight and, with a premium price, the system remains profitable. It has worked effectively through three decades in which the fortunes of sheep producers have ebbed and flowed.

It also continues to succeed under the most market-led economic conditions, and on a farm on which two-thirds of the permanent pasture has been under Countryside Stewardshipfor 15 years.

It is indeed a system which remains right for the time, but with the continuing requirement of technological advances in feeding and breeding management to ensure the margins remains worthwhile.