With more sheep per
shepherd on most farms,
reducing labour input a ewe
output is a challenge.
Shelley Wright reports
from a Scottish farm with a
strong focus on breeding
easy care ewes
SIMPLY lambing natures way is the approach behind Dumfriesshire producers Marcus and Kate Maxwells move to easy care sheep production.
Rigid selection criteria since 1994, concentrating primarily on fertility, mothering ability and unassisted lambing, mean the couple, who run the 560ha (1400-acre) Viewfield Farm near New Galloway, have not had to lamb any of their 1000 breeding Romney ewes for three years.
"Despite what many people think, easy care does not mean no care," says Mr Maxwell. "Thats a really important point."
Having decided to go down the easy care route in the early 1990s, choosing the breed of sheep was the next step. "Having spent some time in New Zealand and watched how they did things, I decided to go for Romneys. There isnt another sheep breed in this country with more easy care attributes or a big enough genetic pool to select from," he says.
He began by importing 30 Marshall Romney gimmers and three shearling rams in 1994 from the Marshall Romney Development Group in New Zealand. Then, to get numbers up quickly, he went to Kent in 1996 and bought 400 Romney ewes, which were tupped by the Marshall Romney rams. Another 300 Kent ewes were bought the next year and were artificially inseminated with Marshall Romney imported semen.
By 1998, 250 home-grown gimmers were put into the easy care system. Since then, numbers in the flock have increased each year. This year, 1500 ewes will be put in lamb to a mixture of Viewfield Romney triplet rams, Marshall Romney rams and imported semen.
In addition to the growing easy care flock, the Maxwells run about 500 Romney hoggs, which are not put to the tup, and a commercial flock of 1000 Mules, which is being phased out in favour of Romneys.
The idea of easy care sheep is not based on any dislike of stock work or purely because it is low cost. "I love working with stock. Its just that I dont want to spend every minute of my life doing it," says Mr Maxwell.
His aim in building the flock was to source sheep and semen from flocks with good records and as large a population as possible. "Using artificial insemination is the way I introduce new genetic material into my flock and create intelligent easy care ewes. They can remember how many lambs they have, have a strong mothering instinct, good milking ability, unassisted lambing and sound feet," he says.
Ewe management starts at the end of August when lambs are weaned. All ewes have their mouths and udders checked and any with problems are culled. Ewes with recurrent lameness are also culled, as are any that are very lean. "A ewe must be able to rear two or three lambs and regain some body weight," says Mr Maxwell.
Two weeks before tupping, which begins on Nov 16, ewes are drenched for fluke and worms and moved to paddocks with enough grass to flush them and take them through tupping. "It is important to ensure placental growth through tupping and afterwards because this will influence birth weight," he says.
The ram to ewe ratio is 1:50, although the aim is to increase that to 1:100. Rams are with ewes for 30 days and once removed ewes are spread out on all available grass to minimise embryonic loss caused by stress.
"We scan at 80-90 days and ewes are split into triplets, mixed aged singles, two-tooth twins and two-tooth singles. Ewes with triplets and twins are fed from scanning, with hay and ewe rolls on the ground from a snacker," says Mr Maxwell.
About 10 days before lambing, ewes are moved to lambing fields. Stocking density is determined by grass cover, with the aim being to have enough grass for three weeks after lambing for peak lactation.
All supplementary feeding is stopped once ewes are moved. "As long as there is grass in front of them, they will be fine," he says.
Once ewes are in the field, they are left to their own devices. He checks them three times a day but makes a point of trying not to disturb them. "I never touch or go near a lambing ewe. Romneys make a nesting area and stay there for several days until a good bond with lambs is complete."
Left in fields
Ewes and lambs are left in lambing fields until late May and then moved according to grass availability. They are set stocked and handled only two or three times thereafter. "They are gathered when lambs are docked. Then at shearing, lambs are dosed for worms and gathered once more if they need another worm dose in July," he says.
The aim is to achieve a docking percentage of 185%, killing lambs at 18-19kg deadweight straight off their mothers at 100 days.
Having costed the enterprise for the past four years, the Romneys have left more money each year than Mules. "The biggest cost saving is in labour and feed. The feed and labour cost for Romneys works out at £6.80 a head, while the figure is £9.80 for the Mule ewe because she needs more feed," he says.
Summing up the easy care experience, Mr Maxwell says: "Sheep farming for the past four years has been a pleasure and lambing has been a laugh. Looking to the future is fun." *
• Easy care Romneys.
• Strict culling policy.
• Feed ewes correctly.
Romney ewes are a pleasure to work with, requiring minimal intervention, according to Marcus Maxwell.