Balancing autumn grass with ewe condition is the challenge facing all hill flockmasters in the run-up to tupping time.
But for Gary Schofield, getting it right is one of the year’s most important management tasks.
He runs 900 Swaledale ewes at Heber Farm, Buckden, on fast-draining limestone hill land and 29ha (70 acres) of low-lying meadows – used to flush ewes before tupping – which are prone to flooding.
And to complicate the autumn grazing juggling act, it’s important his 250 shearling gimmer replacements are not given the best grazing in an effort to limit them to a single lamb in their first season.
“Shearlings couldn’t cope with two lambs on the higher land in summer.
There isn’t enough grass.
So we manage them on pasture and not meadow in the autumn in the hope it gets them cycling, but doesn’t give us many twin lambs in the spring,” says Mr Schofield.
Grass is at a premium on the farm all year round.
In winter his entire flock has to be fed daily from early January onwards.
Sugar beet roots have been used for several years, but the shortage of winter grass means ewes need almost as much extra feed as they would if housed.
“Once grass has gone off this limestone land all you are left with is rocks.
It dictates a strict approach to managing the flock, particularly before tupping.”
Mr Schofield says ewe condition is the key to achieving a good lambing percentage and he is satisfied with his current flock performance of 150%.
“Considering the shearlings are held back, I reckon that’s pretty good.”
As early as mid-August, he begins looking ahead to tupping time, even though Bluefaced Leicester tups are not turned out until 5 November.
Swaledale rams go out 10 days later.
“We start to wean Mule lambs in mid-August or even a bit sooner.
That’s early for farms up here, but we need to take the pressure off grass and ewes.
“Giving ewes at least eight weeks to recover before tupping time is important.
But we turn them up on to the high limestone land, so they never come back down in October too fit.
“Grass is precious to us and it has a habit of disappearing fast on the higher land.
Whatever happens, we’ve got to make sure meadows are good enough to support ewes for 10 days before the tups go in and right through until Christmas.”
He reckons 10 days on fresh meadows before tupping is ideal.
“Any less than that and it has not done the job; any longer and they can start to get too fit.”
Mr Schofield’s strict approach to getting stock sold or moved off critical grazing areas as soon as possible highlights the importance of ensuring ample grass for ewes at tupping time.
“We can’t afford to be relaxed about it or we’d come to November with no grass,” he says.
His tupping fields need at least four weeks to freshen up for ewes, although shearlings will be adequately catered for on some higher pastures.
The second week in October sees the main pre-tupping check under way.
All ewes are given a winter-scab dip, tailed, given a worm and fluke drench and a copper bolus.
“We like to do all the stock management tasks at one go.
It means we aren’t stressing the ewes again before tupping and we can get them settled and on to good grass about 10 days before the tups go in.”
But well aware that plans can go awry should bad weather set in and ewes start to spoil more grass than they graze, Mr Schofield draws out about 300 older and more productive ewes to be sent away from the farm for tupping.
“Autumn is probably the most critical time for us on this type of hill farm,” he says.
“How we manage things now will have a direct bearing on next spring’s lamb crop.
“It’s not just about making sure ewes are in the right condition for tupping.
Many farms reckon they can let ewes slip in condition after being tupped, but we can’t do that here, as we’d never get it back.”