31 May 1996

Sold on drifting technique

One Hants producer is using a drifting technique to manage his May lambing flock. Rebecca Austin reports

David Sullivan was struggling to find a way to stay farming in 1991. Then he hit upon May lambing. It was his not-so-barren ewes which saved the day.

Until this point he had been lambing indoors during April. Empty ewes were left outside but, as with most flocks, some of these dropped lambs in May.

"They would produce nice twins without feed," says Mr Sullivan. "Basically they did exactly what I would want from any lambing ewe but without the management and expense I was applying to the main flock.

"But later in the season these cuckoo lambs did not thrive as they were always at the tail end of the flock and picked up more parasites. So I decided to lamb 25% of the flock in May."

In 1991 900 ewes started lambing in April and, as a trial, 300 on May 12. He kept the two flocks separate until weaning so that the younger lambs had fresh pasture.

That years costings gave a £7 a ewe gross margin for the April lambers and £28 a ewe for the May flock. "It cost £8 a ewe less to produce the May lambs and later marketing meant they each fetched £8 more than lambs from the other flock. Not only that, but the person looking after the May lambing flock was always sitting in a deckchair watching the ewes lamb," says Mr Sullivan.

Since then he has consistently lambed 600 Mules and Mashams in May. Over that period he has bought no straw, hay or cake – let alone used a shed.

Mr Sullivan is fortunate in that he is able to secure the right type of grazing for ewes and lambs throughout the year. He says it would not be possible to carry on if he was working with a finite acreage of pasture as it would be difficult to match grass growth to pasture management.

Ewes are flushed on dairy paddocks before three Suffolk rams for every 100 ewes are introduced on Dec 17. On this system it is possible to achieve at least a 180% lambing percentage.

This grass is available to the end of January when dairy farmers want to rest the fields prior to silaging and turnout.

Ewes then move onto 81ha (200 acres) of park land which hasnt been grazed all year. "It is just roughage and this coincides with mid-pregnancy when ewes dont need much nutrition," says Mr Sullivan.

When their needs increase there are herbage seeds (Italian ryegrass) to graze for a neighbouring seed grower from Apr 3 to May 6. At this point it is time to move to the lambing fields – which have been rested.

The lambing procedure, described as drift lambing, was developed by Mr Sullivan after a visit to New Zealand. Unlambed ewes are drifted twice a day away from lambed ewes (see below). It was evolved in an attempt to ensure ewes lamb as naturally as possible. "When lambing inside you are fighting the sheep all the way," explains Mr Sullivan. "For example, she wants to choose her own lambing spot, but you isolate her in a pen which smells of other sheep and then you mask the lambs smell by handling it."

Another advantage over housed lambing is that Mr Sullivan reckons it takes one shepherd to manage 200 ewes inside. When lambing outdoors in May this increases to 500 sheep.

As soon as ewe and lambs are bonded and strong enough they are moved to grazing within a six-mile radius of the lambing fields. Before that journey ewes are crutched and sprayed with 15ml of Vetrazin over the tail to prevent blowfly. Lambs are also sprayed in the same area as maggots can hatch around the tail ring in hot weather.

Foxes can also be a concern at lambing, but he says at that time of year they are not so short of food and are not such a great threat as presumed.

&#8226 Less time spent travelling, allowing one man to look after 500 ewes.

&#8226 Less risk of interference and enables lamb to bond to ewe.

&#8226 Castration/tailing can be carried out in pens post lambing and all ewes fully checked before going to grazing field.

&#8226 Weakly lambs can be housed and given supplementary feed.

&#8226 Allows high stocking rate of lambing fields (50/ha:20/acre)

&#8226 Suits farmers wanting closer control of lambed ewes (gimmers with first lambs and high prolificacy flocks).

The ewe lambed overnight under this tree. Nettles are encouraged for protection. Each sheep is able to choose its lambing spot instinctively.