28 July 1995

ROMNEY IS RATED HIGH IN KENT

The Romney Sheep Breeders Society is celebrating its centenary this year.

Suzie Horne visits neighbouring Kent farmers who have successfully integrated this local breed into contrasting farm practices.

TO run the largest possible flock with the lowest possible costs is the aim of Kent Romney breeder Howard Bates.

"I am basically a commercial sheep farmer and the Romney is the breed I can achieve this with," says Mr Bates, of Becket Barn Farm, Fairfield, near Ashford.

With his stocking rate limited by his land and its classification as permanent pasture in a site of special scientific interest, Mr Bates says the Romney is the breed that he can stock heaviest, at 12.4 ewes a hectare (5/acre). "I know I can stock it heavily and recover very quickly from the effects of a wet spell."

The hardiness and longevity of the Romney are just two of the breeds attributes which the society is promoting in its centenary year. They are also unlikely to stray and are very resistant to foot rot, claim supporters.

"Romneys have been underrated because people often look at lambing percentage as a measure of performance. But you have also got to consider stocking rate, labour and feed requirements and depreciation on the ewe."

Mr Bates, who is a seventh generation Romney grazier, farms in partnership with his wife Yvonne and father Geoffrey. They lamb outdoors at the 146ha (360-acre) holding in mid April. "Lambing is dictated by the seasonal grass growth. Because we are trying to cut costs all the time, we are looking at later lambing so that we dont have heavily pregnant ewes at the hungriest time in February."

The winter feed regime varies according to the season, with silage, hay or straw fed depending on grass growth. Some housing is used in spring, but only to cut down the stocking rate at grass.

The 1200-ewe Romney flock includes 500 registered purebreds. Half the ewes are put to a Romney to provide flock replacements and some ewe lambs for sale. The rest go to a Texel. The flocks scanned lambing percentage is about 140%, usually achieving 135% lambs finished and sold.

Mr Bates aims to sell finished lambs to grade at 19.5kg dw using both Ashford market and more recently the APEX electronic system. "Most purebred Romney lambs will be sold finished by Christmas. They do finish very quickly," he says.

With wool worth about £7 a head from the ewes, management of this by-product is an important consideration. Mr Bates was wool producer of the year in 1991 and believes his outdoor system contributes a great deal to keeping wool clean and healthy.

Ewes are crutched just before lambing and no markers are used unless absolutely necessary. The right nutrition is also important for healthy wool, leading to a yield of about 5kg from ewes and 4.5kg from tegs.

Ewes have traditionally been sold after their third or fourth lamb crop. In many cases they will go on to have at least as many lamb crops again.

"We have got some seventh lambers," says breed society chairman Mr Bates. "As long as they are sound in the mouth and udder, we will keep them.

Though the breed society has supported three improvement schemes in recent years, more work might be done in future on improving confirmation and prolificacy, suggests Mr Bates. This may involve using semen from New Zealand, where an estimated 80% of the national flock can trace Romney blood in its past.

On the 263ha (650-acre) Puddock Farm, just half a mile from Becket Barn, Romneys have to compete with arable crops under a very different regime.

Graham Skinners 450 ewes are run intensively, stocked at between 17.3 and 19.8/ha (7 and 8/acre) on grass leys. About half are purebred Romneys, with the rest Suffolk x Romneys, where a Texel ram is being used for lamb production.

Lambing indoors between mid-February and mid-March, Mr Skinners flock achieves between 170% and 180% lambs sold from a scan showing 175% to 185%. Creep-fed Romney cross lambs are then finished in May and June.

The aim is an 18kg carcass. In his first two or three draws Mr Skinner had more than 50% classified as E2s. "We can get enough lambs out of them but we would like to brush up carcass quality a bit more," he says.

"The lambing fits in well with arable work. Apart from at lambing we employ just one man one day a week on the sheep." Daily shepherding is done by Mr Skinner.

Ewes are sheared when they come in for lambing, during which they are fed straw and nuts. "We are always looking for cost savings and the winter housing and feeding is quite a high cost operation," says Mr Skinner. He favours Romneys partly because of their good cull value, with a three or four cropper worth about £40 and Suffolk x Romneys earning a slight premium on this.

Howard Bates uses the Romney to keep costs down, Graham Skinner (right) whose family were Royal Show winners, have other objectives.