12 March 1999

Slash costs to hold on to lamb market share

By Allan Wright

A DRAMATIC reduction in costs is the only way that sheep farmers will survive increasing pressure on their markets from other meats, says SAC expert John Vipond.

He is developing a low cost system based on April and May lambing with lambs finished fast off a clover-based sward. Pasture would then be allowed to mature for what he calls deferred grazing over winter. The diet would be supplemented with novel feeds like a mix of pot ale syrup and barley.

"Pot ale syrup is the cheapest source of protein in Europe. It is available from distilleries at about £40/t. Yet farmers allow compounder to take the product south, dry it, and sell it back as the basis of a compound feed for about £150/t," says Dr Vipond.

He and Borders farmer Jim Sutherland, better known for his promotion of beef on the bone, are working on adapting a snacker feeder to mix pot ale syrup with barley and deliver it in small heaps to the ewes.

"Among the many advantages of pot ale syrup is the fact that it stimulates rumen bacteria and that allows sheep to graze lank grass which you might expect them to reject.

"We have to look at taking ewes through the winter for about £5, which means producers cannot afford the cost of growing, harvesting, storing, and feeding silage.

"Unless we can get costs right down there is no future for most sheep farmers. It demands a whole new approach based on minimum costs. Costs have to be ripped out of the system and a major cost in most cases is silage," says Dr Vipond. He wants nitrogen inputs replaced by clover and silage costs eliminated by a move to deferred grazing.

"Every farm is going to be different. But we want to develop a system which will suit some and can be adapted by others.

There is the example of an upland farmer who has a late harvest and high grain drying costs. He has switched to harvesting the whole crop a few weeks early and putting it in the old silage pit with added urea. The sheep love it, he says.

Dr Vipond thinks another development might be to winter ewes in a fenced area bedded with bark chips. It works for cattle and is a lot cheaper than housing. Where the farm has a lambing shed and is lambing about now, it might be possible to adapt the snacker for side delivery of the pot ale syrup/cereal mix to avoid any change of diet and with straw to provide roughage. &#42

CUTTING COSTS

&#8226 Must be less than £5 a ewe.

&#8226 Silage too expensive.

&#8226 Snacker-mixer potential?