26 May 1995

Benefit from lambs in

May lambing has brought many benefits to one Hampshire estate. Input costs have been slashed, and both the sheep and shepherds are happier with the new system.

Rebecca Austin reports

WELL immersed in its second season lambing 3000 ewes outdoors in May, the Faccombe Estate will not be returning to more conventional practice in the future.

The benefits are both fiscal and personal. Savings in labour and feed are staggering, while the shepherds now see themselves as stockmen, rather than mere sheep handlers. At the same time those involved have noticed the ewes are less stressed.

The ewe flock, comprising North Country Mules, Mashams and Scotch Mules, is core to maintaining arable fertility on the 1618ha (4000-acre) estate near Andover, Hants. It is folded over two-year leys which are ripped up and drilled for wheat the following year. Artificial fertiliser and spray costs are an extra £75 to £100/ha (£30-£40/acre) more on the continuous arable land.

This is the one constant after the change in lambing policy. Prior to 1994, the estate lambed indoors from late March into April. This practice demanded 600 individual lambing pens, three full-time staff, 14 students and a £30,000 feed bill.

The ewes, stocked at 17/ha (7/acre), were housed at the end of December and fed a straw-based diet supplemented with 220t of concentrates.

Month earlier

As of the 1993/4 lambing season, ewes are housed a month earlier for flushing. Advanced Sheep Breeding Services, based near Wantage, artificially inseminate (AI) 380 ewes every other day from Dec 9 to Dec 22 using semen from high index Texel and Suffolk terminal sires. This year sponges, pregnant mares serum gonadotrophin (PMSG), semen and AI costs stand at £3.95/ewe. Conception rate to first service was 85% this year – a 5% improvement on 1994. Twenty rams were on standby to cover any ewes not holding to service.

Until the end of January, ewes were fed 5.5kg/head of grass silage. From then until turnout in mid-April, 5kg/ewe were offered. Only ewes scanned as carrying triplets, or those in poor condition, were offered 0.2kg of cake. Of the 5t of concentrates bought in, only 2t have been used this year. Feed costs a ewe stand at 40p/head, compared with 80p in 1993/4.

Vet bills have also been slashed. Lambing outdoors removes the necessity of vaccinating for E coli, dealing with watery mouth and disinfecting pens. As a result there has been a £3.10/ewe saving, with annual costs levelling at £1.90 over the past two years.

With labour now down to three full-time shepherds and four contractors, total variable costs have improved by £13/ewe.

In fact, ADAS costings show that at 160% lambs sold, 1994s overall gross margin per hectare was £200 up at £574/ha (£232/acre) on 1993. Finished lambs sold from the first week of October onwards averaged £40/head through an electronic auction. Stores achieved £43 when sold in January after they were folded over turnips on land due for set-aside and then grass leys to the end of the month.

This year it is anticipated the gross margin could increase to £700/ha (£283/acre) because a number of ewes and lambs were lost as a result of listerosis and haemonchus contortis in 1993/4 due to silage grass contaminated by flood waters in May 1993. After winning the British Grassland Societys south-east regional silage competition in 1994/5 these problems have not occurred again this spring.

Using superior rams, selected for fast, lean growth and good conformation helps offset lower prices when lambs are sold later in the year. Gradings are now virtually all E, U and R, at 2 and 3L fatness.

Last year Charollais rams were also used, but that exercise has not been repeated. "Their offspring and any lambs sired by a Bleu du Maine to breed replacements were not very weatherproof," says David Harbottle, director and estate manager.

Snow combs

After shearing in early February – with snow combs to allow 2-3in of wool cover at turnout – ewes are stocked at 29/ha (12/acre) and remain in the field for as long as grass allows. Grass receives 120 units/acre of slow release nitrogen when the ground allows, as well as Kieserite, a magnesium-rich compound normally used for sugar beet. Each field is surrounded by electric fencing to keep sheep in and foxes at out.

As the ewes are not fed or handled often, they express themselves as a hefted flock at lambing. Once each ewe has lambed, she will not stray from the area she lambed in. "After about four days it is possible to see where the ewe has eaten around her lambs, leaving the grass they lie in as protection. Only once the lambs are strong enough will the ewe move on to fresh ground," says Mr Harbottle.

Each shepherd looks after about 500 ewes and works from 6.30am to 9.30pm. They are travelling continually around their patch on ATVs, iodining navels, castrating ram lambs and ringing tails. Weak lambs and triplets are brought indoors for fostering or special care, while others which need attention are penned within four hurdles, but in the area they lambed.

"We are not just aiming for the extra profit," says Mr Harbottle. "We are also looking for the leeway when margins get tighter. Farming is likely to receive less subsidy in the future and other costs will increase."

&#8226 Feed costs halved to 40p/ewe.

&#8226 AI costs £3.95/ewe.

&#8226 Artificial fertiliser and spray costs cut by £75 to £100/ha (£30 to £40/acre) when sheep included in the arable rotation.

&#8226 High index terminal sires improve lamb grades and leanness.

&#8226 Vet bill stands at £1.90/ewe – a £3.10/ewe saving on indoor lambing.

&#8226 Last years gross margin/ha up £200 to £574/ha (£232/acre) compared with 1993s indoor lambing. Expected to reach £700/ha (£283/acre) this year.

&#8226 Ewes housed end of November for flushing.

&#8226 AIed from Dec 9 to Dec 22 using semen from high index terminal sires.

&#8226 Fed about 5kg of grass silage to turnout in mid-April.

&#8226 Shorn with snow combs in early February to allow two to three inches wool growth at turnout.

&#8226 Only ewes scanned with triplets or those in poor condition offered 0.2kg a head of cake a day.

&#8226 Grass receives 120 units/acre slow release nitrogen, plus magnesium-rich Kieserite.

&#8226 Ewes stocked at 29/ha (12/acre).

&#8226 One shepherd looks after 500 ewes at lambing.

&#8226 Finished lambs sold from first week in October, with all stores off the farm by the end of January.

David Harbottle, director and Faccombe Estate manager, says heavily stocking two-year leys with sheep leads to improved and less costly crops in the arable part of the rotation.

After lambing the ewe will stay where she lambed for about four days until the lambs are strong enough to move off with her. Those lambs which need special attention are either taken inside or penned by hurdles in the field.

Head shepherd Alan Payne sprays iodine on each triplets navel soon after it is born. Each shepherd looks after 500 ewes on the estate.