3 November 1995

THREE-FLOCK UNIT BEATS THE FLOODS

Running a three-flock system allows this years ADAS Welsh Sheep Farmer of the Year to maximise returns on a farm which has restricted spring grazing.

Robert Davies reports

THE mixed enterprise business developed on a flood-susceptible unit has won a top award for a Powys family.

On first examination Ffordd Fawr, near Glasbury-on-Wye, is a first class grassland farm, located far enough west to benefit from reasonable year-round rainfall. But much of its lower part is flooded to some extent every spring.

It is impossible to predict how big an area will disappear under the waters of the Wye, or for how long. The farm can comfortably summer 540 Welsh Mule and Suffolk ewes, plus a variable number of bought-in couples. But a smaller number has to be over wintered if early bite for ewes and lambs is to be guaranteed.

The answer devised by Richard Eckley, his wife Barbara and son Mark, is a three-flock system. The purchased couples that spend a short time on the farm are the third component. The other two are sub-divisions of the permanent flock.

Around 100 mainly older ewes are sponged at the end of July and tupped in August to lamb in January. The lambs never go out, and ewes stay inside until there is plenty of grass. The rest of the ewes lamb in March.

Carefully timing the purchase of additional ewes with lambs at foot means that they too do not challenge the main March lambers for spring grass. Early lambing older ewes means that any due for culling can be sold when the cast ewe market is fairly buoyant. The system also eases labour demand in March.

"Early lamb sales also provide a welcome earlier inward cash flow," says Richard Eckley. Provisional figures for this year indicate early lambing ewes achieved a margin of £49 a ewe, excluding forage costs. David Morris, the ADAS consultant, says the figure must be seen in the light of the high overall stocking rate of the January lambers, and way the enterprise made best use of on-farm conditions.

"This year 50% of lambs were sold by the end of April, and 99% by the end of May," Mr Morris says. "The earliest lambs made £54 a head and the later ones £48 a head, and the system allows the family to make optimum use of buildings and grazing."

In 1994 the March lambing flock made a margin of £61 a ewe before forage, compared with an ADAS all-farm average of £49 a ewe, and a top 10 flock average of £65 a head. This was based on achieving a sold lambing percentage of 160, and using excellent quality silage before lambing and hay after, to peg average concentrate costs to about £2 a ewe.

Richard Eckley said the plan is to increase sold lambing percentage of the March flock to 180, possibly by switching to more prolific North of England Mules. Every effort had been made to improve lamb quality. As a committed live auction supporter he is very aware lambs need to have the right conformation and fat cover to attract premium prices.

"I love the challenge of marketing on-the-hoof, but we have joined the Farm Assured Welsh Lamb scheme and might try selling some lambs deadweight if the premium looks right."

The family is always prepared to pay a reasonable price for good quality terminal sires to cover the commercial ewes. Suffolks have always done well on the farm, but the partners remain open minded about future selections.

Until they took a golden handshake under the first European dairy outgoers scheme the farm carried 40 milkers. Though he would still like to see cattle on the farm, and appreciates the benefits of mixed grazing, Richard Eckley has never been able to get good margins from beef cattle.

Around 26.26ha (65 acres) of cereals are grown and Barbara Eckley runs a successful farmhouse bed and breakfast business. But when it was clear Mark would return to the farm after college, another enterprise had to be found.

Contract broiler production was chosen. One shed was built in 1988 and proved so successful that a second was added this year. The enterprise has several advantages, including being independent of land, and providing a steady year-round labour income to even out the peaks and troughs of sheep farming returns. &#42