24 August 2001

Home wintering better bet than costly tack?

Away wintering for hill sheep is likely to be both scarce and

costly this year, so what are the implications of keeping

sheep at home? Robert Davies reports

SENDING ewes away to tack this winter could cost more than £25/head. But home-wintering alternatives may offer an economic solution, according to an ADAS study.

The study on away wintering alternatives was carried out between 1996 and 1999. The original initiative for the work was pressure on producers involved in agri-environment and extensification schemes to cut ewe numbers on semi-natural rough grazing in winter. But there is renewed interest, following foot-and-mouth.

Hardy Speckleface and Scottish Blackface ewes running on the ADASs Pwllpeiran and Redesdale research facilities in Wales and Northumberland, were used in the study. The aim was to quantify the effects of alternative winter management systems on ewe liveweight and condition from October to March and at 50 and 100 days later in the year.

The three systems were home wintering, initially on improved grassland and then, when necessary, in sheds, housing throughout the period and away wintering. Scientists also monitored ewe reproductive performance, animal health and welfare, lamb survival and growth to weaning and relative costs.

As Pwllpeiran has land running up to 625m (1875ft) and high rainfall, routine stock management was different from that at Redesdale, where the land rises to 350m (1150ft) and average annual rainfall is less than half the 1905mm (76in) falling on the Welsh farm.

Animal health was good on all three treatments and ewe mortality was low in all cases. While away wintered ewes had the highest lambing percentage at 143%, compared with 133% for home wintered and 129% for housed ewes, the extra productivity was insufficient to offset the higher cost of away wintering.

Lamb losses averaged 4.4% and were similar for all treatments. All ewes gained weight over winter, with those that were housed putting on the most (3.1kg) and those on tack, the least (1.2kg).

After lambing, all ewes lost weight, but by weaning ewes were of similar and acceptable weights. The heaviest lambs at birth came from housed ewes, though differences in lamb weights and liveweight gains to weaning were marginal.

While all three systems produced high levels of animal performance with good animal health and welfare, costs varied significantly. When the work was done, the bottom line figures were £9.47/ewe for home wintering, £19.18/ewe for housing and £20.53/ewe when sheep were away wintered for 18 weeks.

Owen Davies, ADAS Pwllpeirans leading researcher, calculates that it could cost £8.50/ewe for home wintering this year, and £19.13/ewe for feeding indoors from October.

Early indications suggest that as much as £1/ewe/week may be charged for what tack is available. Add the cost of feed and straw, vet inspection, vehicle disinfection and transport and the bill could be well in excess of £25/head.

But Mr Davies warns that a range of other factors must be considered. Housing and away wintering reduce grazing pressure leading to increased spring grass availability. This cuts ewe feed costs, encourages improved milk yields and results in lower lamb mortality and enhanced growth rates.

A hill farms potential for home wintering depends on the proportion of improved grassland and availability of suitable housing for the pre-lambing period. The greatest potential for wintering ewes at home is on units where more than 5% of grazing has been improved and there is a chance that overall grassland productivity can be increased. &#42

OVERWINTER OPTIONS

&#8226 Away wintering £25/head.

&#8226 Avoid overstocking at home.

&#8226 Consider housing.

Home-wintering could cost hill producers £8.50/ewe this year, says Owen Davies.