13 November 1998

May lambing system counters big decline in lamb %

SIMPLICITY and the reduced labour requirement of May lambing is enough to counter a considerable drop in lamb percentage, says Jim Arbuckle, manager of Dunecht Home Farms in Aberdeenshire.

He is going into his third year of the system which was explained to members of the North of Scotland Grassland Society during an open day last week.

The visitors also saw how the wet autumn has forced Mr Arbuckle to bring in half of his lambs off kale to finish indoors in straw yards instead on a barley and soya ration. Mr Arbuckle also explained how, in a further effort to simplify the sheep system, he was finishing male lambs as entire.

"The normal system is that some lambs finish off grass from mid-August. Everything is weaned at the end of August and lambs finish at grass until early November and then off kale through to late January," he said.

"This year we have sold hardly any lambs since weaning. It has been so wet that the nutritional value of grass has dropped to nearly nothing and lambs have not moved forward at all; we had double the normal number left at this time of year. I decided that, instead of putting them all onto kale, the more forward ones should come inside and on to a simple ad-lib mix of barley lights and soya in straw-bedded courts.

"The change in a fortnight has been quite dramatic and many of them are now ready for marketing," said Mr Arbuckle, who housed 400 lambs, leaving the same number of lighter lambs to go onto kale and swedes.

The Dunecht sheep system used to see 2000 ewes lamb indoors with turnout in early April. "That was too labour intensive and also meant that most lambs were going to market at the bottom of the traditional price trough. We also needed the shed space for cattle."

The first May lambing was done in 1996 with a reduced flock of 1000 Mule ewes and 250 hoggs. "The first year was splendid and we caught the November/ December price rise and saw our gross margin a ewe rise from £42 to £66. Unfortunately, the price pattern has not been maintained and last year the margin fell back to £40. I shudder to think what it will be this time," said Mr Arbuckle.

But the May system is being continued with ewes clipped and housed in late November, tupped from mid-December and lambed outside in May. "Labour requirement has reduced by a third and it is now a one-man operation. Lambing is a piece of cake although shelter is required. There is a 15% drop in lambing percentage with later mating although we think that can be improved by keeping shed lights off as much as possible."

Simplifying the system even further in this past year, Mr Arbuckle switched feeding from silage to sheep cobs fed in straw yards. "The simplicity was wonderful but we lost a further 5% in lambing percentage because of the competition among the ewes at feeding time.

"We hope to cut that loss this year by having ewes in smaller groups, but we are sticking to cobs for three reasons: Ease and speed of feeding, reduced cost, and total control over ME levels," he said.

"We have less silage to make, handle, and waste. At £15/t and ewes eating 5kg a day, it was costing 7.5p a ewe a day. This past year, cob cost was 8.25p for the 20 days around tupping and 5.7p for the rest of the time. Cobs will be cheaper again this year."

Suffolk and Charollais are used as terminal sires on the ewe flock, with a Shetland ram preferred for hoggs because of its hardiness and ease of lambing.

All tup lambs this year have been kept entire. "Again it was to make the system as simple and low labour as possible. Lambs have to be segregated at weaning but that is the only extra work. The abattoir is delighted with carcasses and has even stopped putting the traditional ram traits mark on the grading sheet," said Mr Arbuckle.

Cutting deeply into fixed costs is the overall aim at Dunecht Home Farms, which covers 1200ha (3000 acres) plus a hill unit of 2000ha (5000 acres), largely grouse moor. Livestock is seen as an integral part of the mix which includes 690ha (1700 acres) of cereals. But the suckler herd of 420 cows is also being reduced and simplified so it can be run by one man.

"The way forward for agriculture will be to expand or cut right back on fixed costs. We are following the second route with labour down from nine men to six and far more use of contractors in the arable enterprise," he said. &#42

Allan Wright

Bad weather has forced Jim Arbuckle to finish some of his May-born lambs inside instead of on kale.

DUNECHTSYSTEM

&#8226 Simple May lambing system.

&#8226 Male lambs kept entire.

&#8226 All lambs finished.

&#8226 Cutting fixed costs.