EXPANDING A FLOCK without a big capital investment can be difficult in traditional indoor lambing systems, but moving to lambing in May can solve the problem, says Northants producer Phil King.

“We were lambing indoors in February, but, with no buildings of our own, we were having to rent housing from neighbouring producers. This made expansion difficult and expensive,” says Phil King, who farms in partnership with his father Edwin at Helmdon, Brackley.

In a bid to run more sheep, and inspired by a visiting speaker to their local sheep discussion group, the Kings decided to try lambing a batch of ewes in May 2000. “In the first year we tried lambing 50 ewes outside and it went well. Ewes lambed themselves, lambs were quick to get up and suck and feed costs were greatly reduced.”

Gradually, numbers lambed outside have risen and this year all ewes will be lambed outside in May, says Edwin King. “It means less work for us and ewes are less stressed at lambing. Lamb losses from May lambing ewes have never been more than 3-4%, compared with up to 15-20% in a bad year of indoor lambing.

” While admitting that lambing percentages are lower in the May lambers – 170% compared with 190% when lambing in February – the Kings believe that fewer losses mean lamb sales are similar.

 “Additionally, as we were lambing in February not January, we were missing the peak of the early lamb trade. It was difficult to justify when all we seemed to be doing was chasing higher prices to cover the extra costs,” says Edwin King.

This year 300 Mules and Suffolk x Mule ewes will begin lambing on May 1. Tups were put out in early December and will be brought off in late January, says Phil King. “Most ewes are tupped early in the cycle and hold to the first service, so lambing is normally quite compact.

” Throughout winter, ewes are run on rented grass keep, with finishing hoggets run on rented autumn-sown grass seeds. “Local dairy farms and hay growers have plenty of keep to let out, with 300 acres rented from November through to March.

” Ewes are offered no concentrates at any time through the year, with the only supplementary feed offered being a little haylage. “We used to make our own hay to feed ewes when housed, but with ewes now run outside all winter, we make less and are still able to sell a large proportion of it, providing another source of income.

” Ewes are scanned 2.5-3 months after tupping, but, as ewes are not fed any concentrates, they are not split before lambing.

The Kings check ewes about four times a day during lambing, compared with the constant supervision needed with indoor lambing. “About 12 hours after lambing ewes and lambs are walked off to the post-lambing field, with lambs rung and ewes drenched before moving.

“With ewes shorn before lambing, there is no need for routine handling again for about eight weeks. This makes management simple and gives lambs the chance to thrive,” says Phil King.

And with both partners having other jobs away from the unit, May lambing should mean less time taken off work. “I used to take three weeks holiday when we lambed indoors. Now, as I milk for a local dairy farm nine times a week, I can carry on working and lamb in between.

” On the sales front, all lambs are sold liveweight through Thrapston market. “We start selling lambs off grass in September and October, with most sold after Christmas as the price starts to firm. Before, we were selling most lambs in the summer and autumn when prices were falling. Now we are getting better prices and production costs are much lower.

” This year fertiliser is being eliminated from the King”s production costs, as large areas of Countryside Stewardship grazing are available locally through the summer. “This means we can spread ewes across more acres, removing the need to push grass growth. We”re not sure how we will fare under SFP, but cutting out unnecessary costs, such as building rental, concentrates and fertiliser should help,” he adds.