A RETHINK ON the management and feeding of store lambs has brought about radical changes to the way the Armstrong family is finishing up to 8000 lambs this winter.

Although some lambs are still traditionally finished on turnips with supplementary trough feeding, the bulk of this winter”s output of 250 prime lambs a week will be produced from a silage-based, intensive system.

Sceugh Dyke, Calthwaite, Carlisle, carries a flock of 800 North of England Mules put to Suffolk tups, but store lambs are bought in large numbers from July until March. This maintains a year-round supply of prime lambs.

“There isn”t a week in the year when we aren”t selling prime lambs,” says Tucker Armstrong who farms with sons Stuart, Brian and Ian and daughter, Lynn.

At Christmas there were 3500 store lambs on the farm. Typical of those being bought in mid- December were good quality Suffolk lambs out of Cheviot x Mules costing about 40 a head.

But the traditional turnip crop is no longer at the heart of the Armstrongs” system. Four years ago a slatted-floored shed was built to provide housing to give lambs which had been outside on roots a final push.

Now the airy shed – which holds about 1000 head – provides a clean and dry environment for lambs. These are housed for the final six-week finishing period after spending about four weeks at grass.

“This season”s lambs have been about 3 a head dearer than last year, so there was even more reason to look at how we do things. Margins are tight. You have to do this job as efficiently as you can,” says Mr Armstrong.

With fewer lambs on roots – about 600 during December – and more lambs spending longer on the slats, it was necessary to look closely at a diet more suited to an intensive system.

Grainbeet had been used in previous years with straw offered alongside, but it had its problems. Some lambs seemed to go stale after a few weeks on this diet and intakes could suffer,” says Stuart Armstrong. Grainbeet is, however, still being used to finish a small number of lambs.

Stuart Armstrong runs the feeding side of the store lamb enterprise and decided to try a silage-based diet. He settled on a mix consisting of 850kg of silage, 500kg of a blend, 250kg of whole oats, 50kg of sugar beet, plus molasses and minerals.

“We used whole barley at the start, but lambs were picking it out and taking in too much. So, we switched to whole oats. The ration is working well and costing about 88p a lamb a week.”

The ration is fed twice a day via a mixer wagon. “We feed in the morning and just enough at night to ensure it”s cleaned up again by morning. Lambs aren”t selective and only leave a few silage stalks,” he says.

This system relies on buying in good quality, mainly Suffolk-sired lambs weighing 35-36kg. Weight gains are up to 10kg a lamb, with an ideal finished weight of 44kg. The target weekly gain is at least 1kg.

“On arrival all lambs are wormed, given a trace-element drench and put through the footbath. It”s essential to make sure nothing hampers performance. We need them to start gaining condition as soon as they arrive and often give a second trace element dose to any lambs we think need a boost.”

Bought-in stores spend three to four weeks at grass, where they are accustomed to being trough fed in readiness for the move inside. The biggest lambs are built up to a feed intake of 0.8kg a day before housing.

“You can”t put them straight inside and expect them to trough feed. We want them healthy and thriving outside before we bring them in, so the transition doesn”t give them a check,” says Tucker Armstrong.

Any lambs left in a pen and needing more time to finish are switched to another group. As one batch of lambs is loaded to leave the farm another batch is brought in from grass to be housed.

He admits there are risks. “But we”ve been doing this for a long time,” he says and he is optimistic about the 2005 hogget trade.

“I think the market could be okay, but I”m not convinced the hogget price will take off. Stores never get easier to buy after Christmas, but if we can continue to get about 50 a head in the prime ring as we move into the New Year, we”ll be satisfied.”