2 November 2001

Fewer sheep, higher quality

A Cumbria estate is

streamlining its sheep

operation, but movement

restrictions mean £100,000

of stock remains on the unit,

severely restricting cashflow.

Jeremy Hunt reports

A HIGHER lambing percentage aimed at sustaining output from fewer sheep underpins the decision by a Cumbria estate to switch from the traditional practice of breeding North of England Mules to producing prime lambs.

"Reducing stocking rates, keeping fewer sheep and aiming for about 175% lambs sold/ewe is the basis of the new-look sheep enterprise," says David Lawton of Greystoke Castle Farms, near Penrith.

The reorganisation will reduce the estates 3000 sheep to 2300. The change will also enable enough gimmers to be kept to maintain the sheep quota, but a government quota buy-up could be an attractive option if the price was right.

The flock comprises 560 Mules running alongside 345 North Country Cheviots as the main prime lamb producers.

But the aim is to run 1000 Mule ewes and 400 North Country Cheviots producing prime lambs by Texel tups. Only 500 of the estates current 1900 Swaledale ewes will be bred pure while the rest will produce Mule lambs as flock replacements.

The estate, which also runs Continental-cross suckler cows put to Charolais and Limousin bulls, is managed by Mr Lawton, who is also a partner in the business with the Howard family.

He says slashing fixed costs has been a priority since he joined the partnership 13 years ago. "There is no reason why this type of farm needs to have large sums of money tied up in expensive machinery. Apart from slurry and fertiliser spreading, we use contractors for everything. Investment in machinery is minimal.

"It has not freed up extra cash over the long term, but has stopped the drain on capital."

Reducing ewe numbers but maintaining lamb output is key to the estates future sheep policy. The change will require some investment over the next three years to provide winter housing for twin-bearing ewes during late pregnancy.

"The farm is exposed and we have land running to 1100ft but it is good enough to support Mule sheep and produce prime lamb instead of concentrating on selling North of England Mule gimmers," says Mr Lawton.

Although the stocking rate will be lower, as Mule numbers are increased, lamb output will be maintained. The flock is managed by two shepherds who will each have more than 1150 ewes plus hoggets and fat lambs in their care.

"We aim for high standards of shepherding, particularly at lambing time. Running fewer but more productive sheep and housing them in late pregnancy should enable us to maintain those standards when dealing with a larger lamb crop.

"In theory, future individual ewe performance will increase to about 175% lambs sold/ewe as stocking rate is reduced. We hope to start drawing Texel-sired lambs from July."

Mr Lawton anticipates changes in the sheep sector and sees prime lamb output becoming more concentrated among dedicated, larger flocks.

"I think we will see a realignment of sheep production, partially due to foot-and-mouth and also caused by the fluctuating returns that smaller or non-specialised sheep producers cannot withstand. And neither can we. But if there is £1/kg for our best 38-42kg lambs – which is still only what we were getting five years ago – we can achieve a margin.

"Ewe headage payments have to be factored into that equation and if they are eroded it will apply further pressure to profitability."

Mr Lawton says Greystoke Castle Farms is making a profit but adds: "The bottom line figure is before rental and partners drawings. The latter are below the agricultural wage level and theres nothing spare for reinvestment. We have four staff to pay and despite farming 2200 acres, running 3000 ewes and 260 suckler cows we are not making a fortune."

GREYSTOKECASTLEFARMS

&#8226 Reducing sheep numbers.

&#8226 Switching away from Mule gimmers.

&#8226 Producing prime lambs.

Less means more for David Lawton, who will cut ewe numbers but increase lamb quantity and quality at Greystoke Castle Farms.