9 August 2002

Flock rate cuts wont boost incomes

CLAIMING agri-environment payments could be another way of improving hill flock incomes, but work at ADAS Pwllpeiran indicates that severely reducing stocking rate to get higher subsides may not benefit producers pockets or the environment.

Barbara McLean compared the impact of stocking ewes according to two environmentally sensitive area prescriptions, 0.22 and 0.15 livestock units/ha (0.1 and 0.06/acre). Initially, both ewe and lamb performance was higher from the lower stocking rate: Ewe live weights were heavier at tupping, lambing percentage was slightly better and lambs from lighter stocked ewes grew more quickly.

"However, after three years, the differences converged. By year four there was little difference in animal performance," said Dr McLean.

"This surprising effect was put down to the lower stocking rate, allowing sheep to confine themselves to areas of preferred fine grasses." This allowed dwarf shrubs, such as heather, to become more dense and less penetrable and encouraged less invasive grasses like Molinia and Nardus to spread.

At first the £20/ha (£8/acre) difference in the level of support payments between the two stocking rates more than made up for the difference in the total value of lamb sold. But over time the difference in gross margins/ha converged and reversed. However, gross margin/ewe remained consistently higher over the five year study.

Dr McLean concluded that proactive management of semi-natural grassland was needed to ensure it remained productive when lightly stocked. Alternatively, prescriptions needed to be modified to sustain the early benefits. &#42