Early lambing premium justifies the extra costs
Crossbred ewes, tupped with
Charollais sires for January
lambing, produce top quality
lambs for a premium market,
as Jeremy Hunt finds out
TAILORING the management of an early lambing flock has produced a profitable enterprise that saw 40kg lambs making up to £70 apiece in April.
None of the first-draw lambs from Cumbrian producer Brian Bowness flock of 500 Charollais x Masham ewes sold for less than £60, justifying extra feed and synchronisation costs.
"If lambs start eating dry feed at four weeks old and then they eat 1.8kg a head every day until slaughter at 12-15 weeks, it has not cost us a fortune," says Mr Bowness, who estimates the cost of this feed at £8 a lamb.
"And, at a cost of £1.07 each for sponges and a pregnant mare serum injection at £2 a ewe, it does not cost much to get a ewe in lamb for early January."
Early lambers at Mr Bowness Bank Farm, Crosby Ravensworth, Penrith, are based on 220 Masham ewes, initially crossed with a Charollais. The female progeny are retained to form the 500 January lambers, again crossed with Charollais to produce a three-quarter-bred prime lamb.
The early lambing flock was set up four years ago and was originally based on older Masham ewes that would have been culled.
"I was concerned that there were too many prime lambs being marketed at the same time and we wanted to try something different," says Mr Bowness.
"It seemed such a waste of good sheep to cull our old Masham ewes for about £15 apiece in autumn, when they could still do a job for us. We decided to keep them and sponge them for a January lambing."
The venture was a success and older ewes were sold for £30 the following spring, when their lambs were eight weeks old. "This extra £15 went a long way towards the costs of sponging and feed," says Mr Bowness.
Now there is a more structured approach to the farms production of prime lambs, sold from Easter until June.
Ewes are run tightly during the fortnight before sponges are inserted on Aug 1. Sponges are removed on Aug 14 and ewes are injected with pregnant mare serum. Rams are turned in two days later. "We like a lot of ram power," says Mr Bowness. "We run one tup for every eight ewes."
Tups are taken out after six days and then returned for one week to catch any ewes in the second cycle. The aim is to have a concentrated lambing time. In practice, it covers seven to eight days starting on about Jan 12, followed by a similar period about 12 days later.
This year 464 of the 500 ewes scanned in-lamb at 185% and this produced an actual lambing percentage of 170%.
To stop older ewes producing such a high percentage of multiple births – this year there were 15 sets of quads – the PMS dose is being reduced.
"Any ewes failing to hold for January are switched to the April lambing flock and tupped in early November," says Mr Bowness.
"The only sheep we sponge for January are the broken-mouthed ewes and the three and four shears. The two shears and shearlings lamb in April. It is a system which allows us to have shearlings and two shears lambing in April, but we can wean their lambs in early summer and then sponge the ewes on Aug 1, ready to move them to the January lambing flock."
Mr Bowness, who lost almost 500 sheep in a contiguous foot-and-mouth cull on another farm in early spring, considers the double-dose of Charollais ideal for producing a tight-jacketed, well-fleshed, early lamb.
"I only use tups with plenty of shape and thick hindquarter muscling. Just the look of these lambs, their quality, shape and tight skins, probably puts at least a £2 premium on them. We are producing 40kg lambs at 12 weeks old and sell later lambs at up to 45kg."
All diets are based on home-grown crimped grain. Ewes are fed well after lambing on about 1.8kg a head a day of a 16-18% home-mix. Lambs are offered creep – also based on crimped grain -after two weeks, but intakes are limited until lambs are about a month old.
"Many say the costs of early lambing are prohibitive," says Mr Bowness. "We are using our own grain and, because we breed our own Charollais x Masham ewes, we have control of our replacements. The only sheep we buy are 50 small Masham hoggs to run on and tup as shearlings.
"But I reckon our January lambing costs are no more than we would have to cope with if we were dependent on selling all our lambs in autumn.
"Feeding spring-born lambs on a wet farm in late autumn and trying to get them fit to sell can run away with feed costs. It might not seem like it at the time, but you can easily shovel £7-£8 of feed into a lamb at that time of year and then you are also faced with a lower market price."
Mr Bowness sells lambs live and through the Cumbrian Fellbred marketing scheme. "The prime lamb price slump in mid-May, which brought the market back to £2.25/kg, has made us reconsider our marketing plan for the rest of this season," he says.
"We will probably sell all our wether lambs and run on the three-quarter-bred Charollais x Masham ewe hoggs until autumn.
"We will tup them with a Charollais and sell them in the New Year. I expect there will be a demand for breeding sheep of that calibre next spring." *
• Synchronisation costs £3 a ewe.
• Lambs fed home-grown ration.
• Premium sale prices.