31 March 1995

Bulk fattening to demand

One Somerset sheep producer makes use of redundant dairy buildings to fatten store lambs from August through to April at any one time.

Rebecca Austin reports

THE gradual demise of small dairy farms on the Somerset Levels has enabled one sheep producer in the area to expand his business.

Over the winter months Brian Whitcombe fattens up to 3000 hoggs at any one time within a seven-mile radius of Westhay, Glastonbury.

He starts buying store lambs at the end of August and continues to the end of April. The system allows him to sell about 500 lambs a week when demand is high, to cash in on a buoyant market before new season supplies start again.

The lambs are turned out onto about 809ha (2000 acres) of pasture once cows are housed. They are kept in groups of up to 250-head contained by electric fencing.

When the weather deteriorates they come indoors and are finished on a number of farms in redundant cow sheds or covered silage pits.

They are offered a 15% protein and 4% fat ration ad-lib. It contains barley, soya and US distillers grains with fishmeal. There is also a proportion of caustic-treated straw to aid digestion, plus minerals and vitamins. Feed is supplied by Bridgewater-based Bowerings Animal Feeds and costs between £165 to £170/t delivered in bulk. With 3000 lambs eating 16t a week, feed is a major cost.

At this time of year hoggs go straight out onto grass when bought. Because there are still lambs indoors it is possible to compare the two systems.

"Those finished indoors are ready nearly a week earlier than the hoggs outside because they eat more ration and dont move around so much," says Mr Whitcombe.

Widely sourced

The lambs are sourced from all over the country by private dealers, auctioneers, electronic auctioneering fieldsmen and others with the right contacts. Mr Whitcombe is not particular about breed. "I do prefer the Charollais and Texel, but it is difficult to get quality lambs because producers with decent sheep fatten at home.

On arrival the lambs usually weigh about 35kg. When finished they have reached 40kg and kill out at 20kg deadweight. Most classify as Rs and Us and Mr Whitcombe aims for a 3L fat grade. "It is important to sell the lambs at the right finish. I try to avoid 2s because abattoirs want lambs which are well-fleshed."

He sends 500 a week direct to the Southampton-based abattoir, &#42 M Bennett. Says procurement director Juliet Davies: "It is reassuring to know that we are going to get two consistent loads of lambs from Mr Whitcombe each week and that they will be at the weights we want, which is between 18kg and 20kg deadweight. The secret of his success is that he buys stores at the right size and weight. He then finishes them to the right weight, even though it is so easy for many producers to get them far too heavy."

Mr Whitcombe does sell some lambs on the screen by the electronic auction, but he admits this is more expensive because of commission charges.

Sheep scab is major concern and Mr Whitcombe is adamant compulsory dipping should be re-introduced as soon as possible. "It is certainly a problem," he says. "There are still signs of lambs coming out of the market with scab." In the interim he dips every group of sheep, which means about 500 head every week. Lambs are isolated until dipped with an OP dip.

Mr Whitcombe starts to sell lambs from November. Every Wednesday and Thursday he puts all the lambs through a race and sorts them, picking out those fit for slaughter. At the same time they run through a formalin footbath as scald is a constant threat during housing. Lambs are drenched once a month.

Mortality rate stands at 1.5%, with pneumonia proving to be the biggest killer. "Lambs need plenty of air in the yards. The covered silos are the best," says Mr Whitcombe. &#42

Brian Whitcombe fattens up to 3000 hoggs at any one time, which allows him to sell 500 lambs a week when demand is high.

Lambs finished over winter are housed in redundant dairy buildings such as covered silage pits.