James Evans’ structured changes to the 780-ewe flock at Walcot is moving the business toward a more sustainable future, according to the authoritive figures of 2008 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year Crosby Cleland and ADAS sheep specialist Kate Phillips.


Costs – of which labour and feed are key – must be driven down if UK flock owners are to compete with international competition, Mr Cleland told visitors to Walcot Farm on a recent EBLEX Open Day. “New Zealand farms can produce lamb at £1.80/kg deadweight against UK farms at nearer £4/kg. The aim has to be to get costs down to below £3/kg deadweight.

“In New Zealand flock owners are focused on what income they can get from the ground and most important to them is grazing management; it’s then up to the sheep to do something with it. In the UK were too concerned with [sheep] breeds,” he added.

But breeds do feature. The switch in bloodlines at Walcot hopes to create an easier care flock producing more saleable, consistent lamb carcases. This is being done by opting in to a dedicated supply chain to a multiple retailer where specific terminal sires are used, explains James Evans, who farms a total of 800ha (2000 acres) with brother Rob and parents John and Hilary.

Although there is marginal difference in weekly lamb prices on the retailer-specific supply agreement and the open market price, lambs achieving a tight carcass quality criteria attract a small bonus – circa £2.50/lamb – paid in November.

But that is just one element in improving income. Cutting costs at lambing has potential to reduce production costs significantly, explained Mr Evans.

Traditionally a month before lambing starts all ewes are housed on straw and fed concentrates. The aim in future is for most to lamb outdoors with minimal assistance.

Ewes carrying triples may still be housed with the Evans’ favouring wet fostering tactics to move triplets on to ewes supporting single lambs.

Mr Cleland urged Mr Evans to re-consider and put some, and potentially all, triplet-carrying ewes outdoors. “Triplets need better nutrition so keep ewes close by on better pasture.

“In my experience this can work well as good grazing supports milk production and lambs will thrive.”

Half the lamb crop is sold finished at 41kg liveweight achieving £62/head; the remainder are sold as stores at 36kg liveweight for £54/head. Variable costs need to be cut particularly for feed.

Walcot Farm costings (£/ewe*)

Variable cost

Walcot

Top 1/3 producers

Feed

14.80

7.28

Forage

3.20

3.32

Vet

5.00

6.46

Misc (shearing etc)

1.90

2.92

Total

24.90

21.28

Fixed Costs

 

31.68

Non-cash Costs

 

33.54

Total

 

90.12 (inc labour)

* Source: EBLEX November 2009

Grassland performance affects feed costs and is, therefore, an issue. Some 40ha (100 acres) of low lying ground is entered into an agri-environmental scheme paying about £340/ha (£140/ac) for reverting ground back to low-input grassland. Productivity has fallen by 50% in two years due to restrictions on fertiliser use, although clover is helping support grassland nutrition.

Locking in to such a scheme may seem a retrograde step when grazing quality is an issue, said Kate Phillips. “However, at least scheme money is guaranteed for the 10-year agreement unlike lamb prices over which producers have little or no control.”

With the scheme’s restriction on fertiliser use Mr Evans needed to improve grass management. Keeping swards down to 4-8cm grazing length (under 2000kg DM/ha) would maintain forage quality and reduce wastage, commented advisors. Clover covers at 30% (visual) density could provide the equivalent of 200kg N/ha.

Grazing season and ewe nutrition at Walcot is aided greatly by use of follow-on forage root crops in the form of stubble turnips. Twin-carrying ewes are allocated grazing blocks helping contain autumn and winter feed costs – a good step, said Mr Cleland.

However, ewe performance and lamb growth needed monitoring. The aim should be for a 65kg ewe to wean 140% of her bodyweight in lamb at 100 days.

Other monitoring was also advisable. Trace element deficiencies within ewes should be monitored as these can affect fertility as well as growth potential, advised Mrs Phillips.

Blood samples would determine whether it paid to supplement diets with a specific element, for example selenium, rather than use a general lick providing a “belt and braces” approach.

Overall, Mr Evans’ approach was moving in the right direction, said Mr Cleland. “There is a need to keep challenging yourself. But you can do little without accurate financial figures and that’s what most UK flocks lack.”