What are the secrets of a
top performing flock?
Robert Davies, visited a
north Wales unit which falls
into the top one-third of
MLC Flockplan hill flocks
EXCELLENT grassland management and sustained breeding improvements lie behind gross margins which are more than £10/ewe higher than average on one Welsh hill farm.
David Evans, a senior Promar International consultant, was with Signet Consulting when he first started working with the Williams family three years ago. From the start he was impressed by their determination to improve sheep and the way they managed them.
"They just want to get better and better. In 2000/2001 the gross margin/ewe was £10.60 higher than the average for Flockplan hill farms and gross margin/hectare was £453. But they are still looking for improvements," says Mr Evans.
Alwyn Williams became the fifth generation of his family to run Capele Farm near Cerrigydrudion, which is 12 miles from Ruthin, in the early 1990s. He farms in partnership with his wife Lowri, who does the book-keeping. Their son Siôn, who combines working on the farm with outside contracting, is about to join the partnership.
They farm 160ha (405 acres) of severely disadvantaged land in two units, one of which is rented. They have quota for 830 ewes and 57 suckler cows. When Mr Evans first visited, the flock achieved a reared lambing percentage of 120, the average lamb carcass weight was 14.67kg and the value of lambs sold was £25.10 a ewe.
Mr Williams was already trying to improve the size of the north Wales-type Welsh Mountain ewes in the flock by importing bloodlines from other offshoots of the breed. At an NSA multi-breed ram sale he found the Talybont type, which is widely used in south Powys, particularly impressive, but only after all entries were sold.
However, he managed to buy a tup that had not been forward because it suffered from arthritis. It worked for two seasons and certainly increased the size of ewe lambs sired by it. Other rams have since come in from the same area.
With land running from 300-390m (1000-1300ft) and outside lambing, hardiness must be retained. Until three years ago the partners lambed inside, but, with no specialist sheds, labour demand was high and it was difficult to keep sheep healthy.
"Costs were also rising and when I compared the survival and growth rates of groups of lambs born inside and outside, it was clear outdoor lambing was best. Reared lambing percentage is now 129."
The first lambs are born in early April and, because ewe lambs are not tupped, the lambing season is limited to about three weeks. This year, first finished lambs were sold in the third week of July.
Grass is carefully managed to achieve rapid lamb growth. Early bite fertiliser is applied as soon as possible and ewe lambs returning from tack are sent to mountain land the partners share with one other grazier.
Ewe nuts are fed from six weeks before lambing until there is sufficient grass to allow ewes to milk well. The total concentrate feed bill in 2000/01 was £4.02/ewe, or 13p/ewe lower than the Flockplan average.
"Having enough good quality grazing for ewes and lambs is one key reason why the flock figures, particularly the improvement in lamb carcass weights, are so good," says Mr Evans.
Breeding to improve ewe size and choice of terminal sire have also contributed heavily. Good quality Texels and Suffolks are used and, in the past three years, the average weight of lambs on the hook has increased from 14.67 to 15.5kg.
Before flock improvement started the farm depended on the light lamb export trade. But marketing opportunities have increased now it produces heavier lambs which regularly classify U for conformation.
In 2001 the average price was 163p/kg compared with 143p two years before. The £25.33/lamb average sale price was £4.41 higher. Average lamb sales/ewe were up from £25.10 to £32.68, and gross margin/hectare in 2001 was £207 better than in 1999.
The drive to improve stock quality also extends to the suckler herd. The farm is one of 11 in the area, and 26 in north Wales that are involved in a project to assess the potential of composite Stabiliser cattle.
Mrs Williams is the group co-ordinator and it has been awarded a £200,000 grant to cover administration and 50% of the cost of using AI and embryos.
"In the longer term we hope that producing replacement sucklers for sale will be a profitable new enterprise," she says.
Her husband believes hill producers cannot afford to stick with traditional breeds and production systems.
"We must keep moving on to be able to produce what the market wants. It is important to have targets and the necessary records to know exactly how each enterprise is performing."
While there has never been a scrapie problem, the next step will be to genotype the flock so all market outlets remain open. *
• Breed larger sheep.
• Better grassland management.
• Careful record keeping.
Breeding larger ewes has opened the gate to better returns for Welsh hill producer Alwyn Williams.
Setting targets with Promar consultant David Evans (left) is the key to improving flock performance, believes Alwyn Williams.