15 September 2000

Lamb deaths still a puzzle

Problems with lambs are causing some concern at

Mincombe Posts, one of two farms run by Stuart Hailey

near Sidbury, Devon. John Burns reports

Livestock problems and low cereal yields concern Stuart Hayley, but grass growth is impressive.

TOP priority for Stuart Hailey has been to find out why some of the lambs at Mincombe Posts have been losing weight and then dying.

Provisional diagnosis, pending tests, was cobalt deficiency and so the worst-affected lambs were given vitamin B12 injections.

But they deteriorated further. When the veterinary laboratory agency at Starcross reported extremely low cobalt levels in their livers, all the lambs were given vitamin B12 and a combined cobalt/vitamin B12 drench was obtained for a further treatment.

However, enlarged lymph glands were also recorded, so Starcross is reserving judgement. Soil and herbage samples are being tested for trace elements, including cobalt. Cost for five soil tests, two including trace elements, and another soil and herbage test for trace elements, will be £185.

Mr Hailey is being careful not to assume the lamb problem is due to organic conversion. "Last year we stopped using general purpose mineral licks for the sheep because the organic rules require us to justify use of any minerals," he says. "So we had to wait and see whether they were needed. We did not get this trouble with the lambs last year."

The new suckler herd is another source of concern because of poor conception in the autumn-calving suckling cows. Mr Hailey has operated a tight autumn block-calving policy for many years with his dairy herd, so he assumed there would be no problem using AI on the sucklers.

Eight out of 10 beef-cross heifers intended for the suckler herd conceived to first service, and one to second service. But some of the suckling cows were not seen bulling and others kept returning.

"So we borrowed a bull and left him in until July. Well be doing PDs shortly. It must be something to do with the feeding of the cows suckling calves, or perhaps the multi-suckling, or both."

Calving is now under way in the dairy herd, and with a large part of the herd still dry, the risk of summer mastitis is a constant concern, especially because much of the farm is heavily wooded with numerous small streams.

Surprisingly, the rules on use of antibiotics in organic farming have not proved difficult to comply with here. For the past four years, Mr Hailey has not practised routine administration of dry cow antibiotics, preferring to treat only those with high cell counts or those that had udder problems during lactation. This year, 14 cows out of 105 dried off were tubed.

"For the past nine years we have handled the dry cows every week. We put Stockholm tar on the teats. It only lasts half the week in warm weather. We really need a thicker version of the tar. We also treat the dry cows with Spot-On once a month. This season so far we have had two quarters with summer mastitis."

Collection charges

The seasons first batch of six bull calves was sold through Wessex Quality Meat to Quality Calves at Melksham, Wilts. They averaged £29. Five were Friesian bulls weighing from 42kg to 68kg. They ranged from £2 to £19.50, and averaged £10. The sixth calf, a Simmental-cross, made £125. Collection charges were £36, and 44p was deducted by WQM for insurance.

Cereal yields are disappointing, although Mr Hailey has no reliable means of measuring them until grain is sold or weighed for home-mixing. "I think well be struggling to average 1t/acre and I cannot explain why yields are quite so low."

However, with the lamb problems possibly due to cobalt deficiency, and a history of routine spraying of cereals with copper in earlier years, he suspects a deficiency of one or more trace elements may be to blame.

Spring oats were cut at 14% moisture. Although winter wheat and triticale were at one stage as dry as that, the contractors combine was not available at the time and they were eventually taken at 18%.

At least the wet August boosted grass growth. Fields usually burn off and turn brown in the summer, but 100mm (4in) of rain last month means both farms are looking lush. Especially impressive is the Italian ryegrass/red clover ley at Mincombe. Now ready for a third cut for silage, it has amazed Mr Hailey.

Another task has been applying for planning permission to construct an unlined slurry lagoon in impermeable ground across the valley from the farmstead. If approved, it will be used to store dirty yard water and liquid from the separator until the growing season starts – when grass can make full use of it.

Mr Hailey estimates that the 400,000 gallon (1818cu m) lagoon and extensions to connect the underground slurry main will cost £6000. &#42

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Sand Farm, Sidbury, Devon, an 89ha (220 acre) dairy farm in organic conversion.

&#8226 A further 64ha (158 acres) at nearby Mincombe Posts farmed under an FBT.

&#8226 100 dairy cows plus 60 followers.

&#8226 180 ewes – mainly Mules, some Suffolk crosses. Beef suckler herd being established.

&#8226 Steep, red clay/greensand slopes at Sand Farm, rising up to flinty clay on plateau. Easier soils and flatter fields at Mincombe Posts.

&#8226 Mainly down to grass/clover leys; oats/peas and lucerne/grass mixes grown for silage, plus cereals for feed.

&#8226 Some areas in Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

&#8226 Three full-time staff.