25 July 1997

IT PAYS TO KEEP IT SIMPLE

Ruthless initial culling, and a drive to produce ewes which would look after themselves have reduced production costs on one Welsh hill farm.Robert Davies reports

THE easy care flock management system operated by Richard Morgan is typical of his keep-it-simple approach to all enterprises on his Cardiganshire farm.

He first heard about the concept while spending a year in New Zealand, but realised that welfare rules meant that the tough system would have to be modified for use in the UK. Nevertheless he was convinced that labour and veterinary costs could be cut on his familys exposed hill farm near Aberystwyth.

When he introduced the idea in 1983, the 145ha (360-acre) Winllan Farm, Talybont, carried 800 Welsh Mountain ewes. Over 70 of these that needed assistance at lambing, had bad udders, or were poor mothers, were marked and culled after weaning, regardless of other characteristics.

In the second season 50 ewes that had problems giving birth or rearing lambs were sold. The ruthless culling rate and problems declined gradually. This season only three ewes out of 900 needed assistance.

Lamb naturally

"We see quite a few ewes that are struggling, but we give them time to lamb naturally, and they usually do," Richard Morgan claims.

"At first we had to fight the urge to intervene, but experience shows that culling has produced a flock of ewes that can generally look after themselves. The Welsh Mountain breed is ideal for this type of system.

"We find the odd dead lamb, and lose a few ewes each season, but mortality is as good, or better, than when we spent endless hours fussing over them.

"Most of the year, 900 ewes are managed by a part-time worker aged over 70, who gets extra help when there are specific jobs to be done."

Other culling criteria have been added over the years. Ewes with mucky back ends at tupping are rejected as being very susceptible to worms. Natural resistance has increased and no sheep have been dosed for three years. Ewes that regularly develop chronic foot rot are not bred, and neither are those with very open fleeces.

If a significant proportion of ewes put to a particular tup have the same lambing problem, the ram is sold. This was the fate of an otherwise excellent tup that persistently sired lambs that had their left front legs bent back in the birth canal.

"Ewes are supplemented only with big bale silage and blocks. Flock health and fertility is good and we get 105 to 110 live lambs born for each 100 ewes."

Lambing percentage is much higher in his 120-ewe elite nucleus flock set up in 1982. This produces high quality rams for the main flock. Tups for the special group, which is divided into five families, are bought privately, or from one of the Welsh Mountain group improvement schemes, which can provide performance figures.

"I dont like special sales, where the rams are puffed up by extra feeding and pre-sale preparation. Buying at fancy ram sales is a lottery, and we know the odds of winning a gamble like that."

Ewes are selected for the elite flock on type and back fat measurement. They retain their places if litter size, lamb size and lamb growth rate are above average. Mr Morgans flock is now one of many taking advantage of scanning available through MLCs Objective 5b financed Welsh Sheep Strategy.

Year-on-year improvement in the early years was rapid, but progress has slowed with enhancement of the overall average quality of the ewes. The average quality of tups produced has improved so much that rams that would have had an index of 160 10 years ago are achieving an index of 125.

Mr Morgan, who farms in partnership with his wife Stephenie, is also a member of the CAMP breed improvement group based at ADAS Pwllpeiran. In time he hopes that this will provide some high index rams to use on his own elite flock.

His no-frills attitude to sheep management also extends to the 70-cow dairy herd he runs on a 56ha (140-acre) lowland farm. The spring calvers average 4100 litres a head from forage and 0.25t of rolled barley a cow.

"There are no health or fertility problems on the system, and butterfat averages 4.2%. I have no idea what the margins a cow and a litre are, and judge everything by the bottom line profit. I could chase higher yields, but with a quota of only 256,000 litres it would mean buying or leasing extra, lowering profit a cow."n

Richard Morgan also runs an elite flock to produce quality tups for his easy-care ewes, and is a member of the CAMP breed improvement group.

Ruthless culling has produced Welsh Mountain ewes capable of looking after themselves at Winllan Farm, Talybont.

CULLING POLICY

&#8226 Lambing difficulties.

&#8226 Worm susceptibility.

&#8226 Chronic foot rot.

&#8226 Open fleeces.

EASY CARE BENEFITS

&#8226 Few lambing difficulties.

&#8226 Reduced vet costs.

&#8226 Less labour.