Do you farm the way you do because its what you’ve always done or because it is what you believe is best economically?

For Brixham-based Peter and Pam Howlett sheep farming is a significant chunk of their income, but having only moved to Woodhuish Farm six years ago, knowing whether their 500-ewe Lleyn x Mule flock is making best use of resources is difficult.

So, when Farmers Weekly and Eblex teamed up to offer farmers the chance to have their businesses assessed by 2007 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year Peter Baber and ADAS consultant Kate Philips, the Howletts leapt at the chance to be involved.

With ewes lambing outside in April and all replacements homebred, the flock will this year rear 134% to the point of sale or retention from a scanning percentage of 166%, explained Mr Howlett. Lambs are finished on ryegrass and red clover leys which maximise forage use from the organic system, and additional store lambs are purchased in autumn to use leys later in the season once homebred lambs have been sold.

Ms Philips calculated that if losses from scanning to sale could be reduced to 10% from their current level of 19% (138 lambs) than another 65 lambs could be reared and at a conservative figure of £50/lamb this would equate to an extra £3250 of income.

store lambs

However, that scanning figure is in many ways irrelevant, said Mr Howlett. “What matters is how many lambs we sell. Admittedly we reared more lambs when we were lambing inside, but we were also paying more for other inputs. The labour and feed saved by lambing outside far outweighed this extra income.”

But, there were also other ways of increasing the number of lambs reared, said Ms Philips. “More than 5% of the ewes put to the tup were barren and this is a significant worry. Also, ewes of this type would be expected to scan at a higher percentage than 166%. Of the 431 ewes tupped last year 32% or 136 scanned as singles, I’d like to see this figure reduced with more ewes carrying twins and the barren rate at below 2%.”

Farmers attending the day suggested it may be that those ewes scanned as barren in their first season were retained to be given another chance and remained barren in their second year. This was something Mr Howlett admitted he did do and recognised it could be having an impact on fertility levels. “In future we’ll aim to cull ewes not holding to service in their first season and see if it helps in future years.”

Since moving to lambing outside, Mr Howlett’s shepherd Simon has dramatically reduced the level of record keeping undertaken and this was another area Ms Philips said could be improved to help in future. “Recording lamb and ewe losses, including the date of the loss and the suspected cause, will help find ways of making improvements in future.”

Looking at those lambs which have been sold Mr Baber said reviewing the last three batches killed had highlighted where better breeding policies could help improve lamb returns. “A batch slaughtered on 9 October resulted in 80% of lambs classifying as 3H for fat class at an average carcass weight of 19.1kg.

“On this occasion taking these lambs to fat class 3H actually resulted in a better income as the extra weight gained on each carcass was worth more financially than the deductions taken off for lambs being too fat. But if these lambs aren’t reaching the top end of most abattoirs’ weight band before they run to fat, I’d rather see lambs hit 21or 22kg before classifying as 3H.”

Again Mr Howlett saw the merit in this argument, but was unsure how to achieve it, bearing in mind the current ewe stock.

However, Mr Baber suggested using tups with high scan weight EBVs would enable lambs to increase carcass weight without becoming too fat. “Tups with higher scan weight EBVs will have better growth earlier in life and hence avoid becoming too fat before reaching optimum slaughter weight.”

There was also an opportunity to make progress on maternal ability through improved breeding, he added. “Selecting Lleyn sires for maternal traits, such as prolificacy and maternal ability will help improve ewe’s mothering ability and hence lamb survival and early life performance.”

On-farm consultancy

Farmers Weekly and Eblex will be running another on-farm consultancy day at Anthony Pearce’s Moat Farm, Marsh Lane, Aylesbury, on 5 November. Anyone interested in attending should contact: 0870 609 1840 or email brpevents@eblex.org.uk

CAP: Bringing in store lambs to finish on the farm’s ryegrass and red clover leys makes maximum use of forage, but increasing lambing percentage and lamb survival from the Lleyn x Mule flock could provide more homebred lambs for finishing.