© Debbie-James

Output from a hill flock of breeding ewes has increased by £4,500 in two years following improvements linked to worm control, grazing management and nutrition.

In 2015, kilogrammes of lamb liveweight produced per ewe at Tirlan Farm, near Brechfa, Carmarthenshire, was 33.3kg.

Since then Catrin George, who farms with her parents, Eric and Dilys Jones, has introduced several measures to improve performance.

By monitoring ewe body condition, using faecal egg counts (FECs) to establish if and when sheep need worming and matching concentrate inputs to silage quality, lamb output per ewe has lifted to 39.4kg.

At current lamb values, that additional yield is worth an extra £10 a ewe.

See also: How two landless young farmers built their 800-head flock

“We haven’t made any major changes to our breed or to our system, we are just monitoring ewe condition from tupping onwards and keeping an eye on worm counts,” says Mrs George.

© Debbie James

“We have learned that fine tuning performance comes down to looking after what you have and maintaining ewe body condition and weight throughout pregnancy. If you do that the ewes will work for you by looking after their lambs from birth to weaning.”

Mrs George reassessed the system at the 188-acre hill farm in 2014 after joining a discussion group that initially focused on ewe nutrition. This developed to include other aspects of ewe and lamb management.

Worm control

The flock of 450 sheep, predominately Beulah Speckled Face with some Poll Dorset and Texel ewes, are run as four groups.

FEC sampling is carried out in each group every fortnight to establish worm status.

“Although sheep show signs of being fit and healthy, a FEC could pick up an underlying problem,” says Mrs George, who took part in the Sainsbury’s FECPAKG2 project that aims to reduce use of anthelmintics.

“This was lowering the daily liveweight gain; the performance was not there.”

She interprets the results to treat sheep sooner than she might have done when they were routinely dosed.

It also allows her to hold back on some routine doses.

“With ewes we used to drench at tupping but we did a FEC test in the middle of September and it came back at 35 eggs per gram so there was no need to drench.

“In the past we used to drench the whole flock, but now that we monitor each group, we only dose the sheep that actually need it.”

The farm vet receives the FEC results too and advises if there are issues that need addressing.

While Mrs George admits she probably isn’t using less anthelmintics, she is using it at the right time to prevent future resistance. After drenching, a further FEC test is carried out to look for signs of resistance.

“Ewes are now only drenched post lambing, and lambs mostly never more than four times – at the beginning of lambing, just before shearing, at weaning if they need it and coming into the autumn.”

Grazing management

If a FEC indicates a high worm burden, sheep are moved to another field to graze.

Fields are grazed in rotation with the herd of 20 Limousin and Limousin-cross suckler cows and their calves.

“We use the cattle to mop up after the sheep,” Mrs George explains.

Fields are reseeded every 10 years with a grass ley lasting five years or more, mixed with white clover.

“We balance the grass with clover to lower the nitrogen needed by the crop and the protein fed as concentrates,” says Mrs George.

Nutrition

Ewes are fed grass silage when grass production diminishes in mid-December. “They are offered a big bale outside,” says Mrs George.

The flock is housed after scanning in January in a purpose-built sheep shed, where ad-lib silage and a 21% protein concentrate is fed.

In 2017, for twin-bearing ewes, this was fed at 0.25kg a ewe/day from six to four weeks pre-lambing, rising to 0.35kg a ewe/day four to two weeks pre-lambing, and 0.55kg a ewe/day from two weeks to lambing.

“This is matched to the silage quality because no two years are the same,” says Mrs George.

See also: How a sheep farmer has slashed winter ration costs

There were two crops of silage in 2016 with one analysing at 66.4% dry matter, an ME of 9.5 MJ/kg, and a crude protein of 9.8; the analysis of the other crop was 36.9% dry matter, an ME of 8.4 MJ/kg and a crude protein of 14.3%.

“The quality of silage has a big influence on costs because it can lower the volume of concentrates we need to feed in the shed,” says Mrs George.

Fifty acres of grass were made into big bale silage in 2017.

Ewe body condition score and weight

Ewes are weighed at tupping, scanning, housing and when their lambs are eight weeks old and being weaned.

Mrs George has established that the better a ewe’s body condition score (BCS) at tupping, the higher her lambing percentage at scanning and her lamb’s weight at eight weeks and at weaning.

The hill ewes are kept at a level BCS 2.5-3. “We avoid peaks and troughs in condition, it is better to keep the profile level than to increase or reduce condition at different times of the year,” says Mrs George.

Performance recording

Data captured electronically is used to identify which ewes are the best performers.

“EID records any issues at lambing and this information is flagged up when they are put through the race. There is no escaping any longer,” says Mrs George.

“A ewe has got to be healthy and productive so we are now more harsh with our culling selection.”

Principle reasons for culling are age, assistance at lambing, prolapse and mastitis.

Mrs George says the improvements in flock performance over the past two years have given her the confidence that the business is on the right track.

“Who knows whether we will continue to receive payments post Brexit, that is out of our control, but we can be in charge of how our flocks perform for us.’’

Tirlan ewe data

 

2015

2016*

2017

Eight-week weight

16.4

14.3

19.8

Weaning weight

23.2

21.5

27.2

% below target (15kgs 8WW)

32

40.4

16.6

Rearing %

143

140

145

Kg/ewe at weaning

33.2

28.8

39.4

*Poor weather in the spring of 2016 took its toll on flock performance

“Some factors are beyond our control and weather is one those,” says Mrs George.

“It was very wet and cold and grass growth was very slow, it really showed in the performance figures we achieved in that year [see table above].”

Tirlan farm facts

  • The Beulah Speckle Face is the foundation flock at Tirlan and has been the breed of choice for three generations, on both sides of the family. The breed performs well on a farm that rises to 300m. It also offers flexibility, says Mrs George, because they can keep them pure for replacements or cross with a Bluefaced Leicester to produce a Welsh mule.
  • The average scanning percentage across the flock, which includes 30 Poll Dorests and a small flock of Texels, was 155% in 2016-17
  • Beulah tups are sourced from society sales in Llandovery and Builth Wells and the Texels from livestock markets
  • Tups are turned in with the Poll Dorsets at the end of September and with the other breeds seven to 10 days later
  • First to lamb from the middle of February are the Poll Dorsets and the rest of the flock from 10 March
  • The flock mostly lambs indoors but if there is pressure on space the Beulahs carrying singles lamb outdoors
  • Ewe lambs are retained and about 70 Welsh mule ewe lambs are sold for breeding at Llanybydder market in September. The remainder are sold to Dunbia from June through to February, averaging 18-20kg deadweight