28 March 1997

Indoors housing is productive solution

AS LAMBING moves into top gear at the Dixons Rakehead Farm, Nateby, Kirkby Stephen, the longer housing period continues to pay dividends in terms of flock and grassland management.

Jonathan Dixon, with sons David and Paul, runs 1500 Swaledale ewes to breed Mule lambs, 700 Mule ewes producing prime Texel-sired lambs and a separate flock of 1300 Swaledales bred pure. As well as extensive fell grazings the farm has 445ha (1100 acres) of in-bye land rising to 549m (1800ft).

As ewes are scanned – starting in January with the Mules – the entire flock is housed over a four-week period within 45-60 days of tupping. By Feb 1 all sheep are under cover. This years scanning produced an impressive 215% for Mule ewes and 165% for the crossing flock of Swaledales.

"Even though we are a hill farm we usually achieve 200% with the Mules. This years 215% is exceptional," says David Dixon.

But the high conception rate in both flocks took its toll this year and ewes were carrying less condition at housing. The Dixons believe that bringing the whole flock inside achieves more efficient management and enables them to immediately counter any nutritional shortfall in mid-pregnancy.

"Although we would always recognise a drop in body condition at scanning, we could not deal with it as effectively if we were feeding ewes outside which is a time consuming and hit-and-miss business with large numbers of sheep," says Paul Dixon.

The flock is housed in strawed pens in groups of around 40 ewes within two large portal-frame buildings. Silage is fed along a feed passage but additional rationing is started as soon as ewes are inside.

The Dixons are firm believers in building up ewes into the correct condition for lambing over several weeks. "We feel that feeding ewes hard just before lambing only produces bigger lambs and the ewe doesnt really benefit," he says.

Rations are based on a diet of distillers grains and beet pulp introduced at housing. Mules receive a 3:2 mix achieving a 19% protein content and the crossing Swaledales a 2:1 mix for 16% protein. All fell ewes are fed a flat rate of 0.3kg until lambing after which they are switched to a 19% high energy concentrate fed for about four weeks.

Mules and the Swaledale crossing ewes are stepped up from 0.3kg a day to 0.7kg three weeks before lambing. By lambing time ewes with twins have switched to a concentrate diet at a daily rate of 1kg.

"Having greater control of the flocks diet over a longer period and being sure that all ewes are getting their share are major advantages of an extended housing period. It does not increase the workload; in fact it makes life easier and there is less feed wasted.

"Some farmers could feed ewes inside faster than we can, but we are satisfied that we can feed and bed up 3500 ewes in just over three hours. If they were outside we would be at it all day," says David Dixon.

Grassland also benefits from having no sheep grazing for three months of the winter. "We can turn ewes out on to a fresh bite and we can apply fertiliser at least two weeks earlier." The first applications were under way in early March.

The flock currently uses about 90t of straw for bedding; pens are bedded daily and completely mucked out once during the housing period.

But next year may see the Mule ewes switched to a straw diet. "Ive been impressed with the condition of flocks Ive seen this year where straw has replaced silage," he says.n

Jeremy Hunt

Management and lambing is easier for David Dixon with ewes inside; its easier to control the diet too.


EXTENDED HOUSING


&#8226 Control of diet.

&#8226 Less feed wasted.

&#8226 Eases workload.