9 August 2002

Superior maternal traits lower production costs

By Robert Davies Wales correspondent

FOCUSING on enhancing maternal traits of ewes and cows is the key to low input, profitable livestock production on one Welsh hill farm.

Many producers are expected to attend an open day at Cernioge Bach, Pentrefoelas, Bettws y Coed, on Aug 24 to see how the extremely wet unit is run. They will see a 710-ewe commercial flock, 650 registered Lleyn ewes and a herd of 100 suckler cows which are being replaced by Stabiliser composites.

Visitors who struggle to make enough winter fodder under similar conditions will be intrigued to find that little grass is conserved. Most sheep are away wintered on several sites, including 40ha (98 acres) taken on a 364-day let in Cheshire.

A little big bale silage is cut for youngstock, but adult cattle are wintered on a straw-based diet. Eifion Ellis, who farms in partnership with his wife Ann and son Dewi, has not costed the system in detail.

But he is sure it is the best way to exploit the farms summer stock carrying capacity.

"It would be impossible to make enough silage here. Transport is expensive, but we can get tack at competitive prices and sending stock away allows us to rest land and avoid poaching. This means sheep return to clean fresh grazing, which improves flock performance."

Mountain land

The Ellis family took over the farm, which extends to 169ha (417 acres) of fields and has access to 143ha (353 acres) of mountain land, in March 1986. They took on the existing Welsh Mountain flock and brought their own Lleyns.

Buying in rams has allowed them to gradually increase the size of hill ewes. Many away-wintered ewes carrying replacements were slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth crisis, so numbers have been maintained by retaining some Texel cross ewe lambs carried by others.

The Lleyns are kept pure and are fully performance recorded. Lambing percentage averages 180, and Eifion says ewes lamb easily and are exceptionally good mothers. The flock is also part of Grwp Llywio Lleyn, an organisation established to improve conformation while retaining the breeds maternal traits.

Rams and females are sold for breeding, but surplus stock is finished at about 40kg liveweight. Like Texel cross lambs, they are mostly sold through local auctions, so the farm does not get regular classification results.

"When we sold on the hook, most lambs graded R or better and demand from buyers when we sell at market suggests they are happy with the way lambs kill out."

Maximising conformation without compromising maternal traits is also the goal for the farms spring calving suckler herd. The Saler and Limousin-cross cows used to produce store cattle are being phased out and replaced by Stabilisers, the composite cattle developed by the Leachman Cattle Company in the US and New Zealand.

Ceirnoge Bach has a multiplier herd registered with the Yorks-based Beef Improvement Group and is using a combination of natural service, AI, embryo transfer and grading up to accelerate the changeover.

The second crop of Stabiliser and Stabiliser-cross calves will be on show at the open day. The herd is one of a group of 26 in north Wales that successfully applied for a £200,000 grant from the Welsh Development Agency.

Mr Ellis is convinced maternal traits are the key to profitable low input livestock production. He predicts there could be a strong demand for milky, good conformation suckler replacements not bred in dairy herds.

"We want hard working, long lasting ewes and cows which reduce replacement costs. We also need lambs and calves that meet market requirements."

The farm is one of 10 demonstration units being monitored through the sheep and beef development programme operated as part of Farming Connect, which is staging the open day in association with the Lleyn Sheep Society.

Innovative technology

"The programme is all about best management practices and innovative technology, which is exactly what we see at Cernioge Bach," says Julie Jones of MLC.

Chris Duller, an Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research scientist, is assessing the impact on total annual grass production of away wintering a large number of stock.

"There is no question that plenty of good grass is needed to get the best out of quality livestock. But how grass is produced is of great interest to the group of producers linked to this demonstration farm," he says. &#42