HOUSING FLOCKS is an expensive time for many producers – it means sheep must be fed twice a day, checked constantly and, all being well, lambed and turned out again.
However, for David McTaggart, of Bonchester Bridge, in the Scottish Borders, housing is a way of moving most of his May-lambing flock off grassland to ensure there is enough grass available at lambing.
“This year, we will lamb 2000 ewes outside in May, so ensuring there is enough grass for when they lamb down is critical. We need to provide ewes with sufficient grass for lamb development in the critical final month of pregnancy.”
Mr McTaggart outwinters 500 ewes on the hill ground he has available, but this means he needs to house the remaining 1500 in mid-January. And with 90 Aberdeen Angus-cross suckler cows and their followers to feed and bed during winter, he needs a system which is simple and straightforward.
“May-lambing ewes don”t need much feed over the winter, but what they have must be good quality and easy to feed. We feed silage in racks with a feed box,” he says. “It takes about half an hour a day to feed all 1500 ewes.”
Rather than managing ewes in small groups in many yards, Mr McTaggart stocks them in groups of about 210. “In one shed we have four groups and in another we have three. Group size isn”t an issue. In fact, larger groups are easier to manage because there is less work when we need to footbath them or do other routine tasks.”
To feed the ewes, Mr McTaggart simply drives a tractor and forage box down through the two sides of each shed, dispensing silage into racks. “After the first couple of times ewes learn what”s happening and run past the tractor as it moves down the shed,” he says.
The system is so simple that stock at Hallrule Farm are only fed six days a week, as Mr McTaggart likes to give his stockman a day off on Sundays. “All we do is give them seven days” feed in six days. We even do it with the cattle.
“But there is no set feeding regime for the sheep, as feed rates depend on the year and how much flesh ewes are carrying at housing.
“We want ewes to lose some condition while they”re housed, so they put some on when they go out to graze spring grass. We try to turn ewes out in early April at condition score 2-2.5, which means they are about condition score 3 at lambing.”
Housed ewes are footbathed once a week to prevent footrot developing and minimise scald among the flock.
Management of outwintered ewes is equally simple, with the 500 Scotch Mule ewes offered silage once a day on the hill. “This silage is stored in an Ag-bag on the hill to avoid the need to carry it to ewes in winter.”
Some 1400 ewes come in during December for tupping, while the remaining 600 are tupped outside. “Rams are put with the outside tupped ewes on about Dec 7, while the inside tupped ewes are put to the ram about a week later. This means we get a more level lambing rather than a peak between days four and 10.”
In a bid to keep lambing compact, tups are only left with ewes for two cycles. “This also means lambs are a similar age, avoiding management problems later in the season.”
And with 2000 ewes lambing and just himself and one permanent member of staff, May is a busy month for Mr McTaggart.
“But we have found one way to save time when checking lambing ewes. We”ve installed ramps for our ATVs, which means we can move between each field without needing to open or close gates.” He estimates these ramps save more than 4000 a year in time alone.