CABBAGE, CALABRESE, cauliflower and brussels sprouts. This may sound more like the ingredients of a winter soup than a lamb finishing diet, but Chipping Camden-based William Haines reckons they’re ideal crops for finishing lambs.
He grazes lambs and in-lamb ewes on about 142ha (350 acres) of vegetable waste a year. “We’ve been grazing sheep on waste from our vegetable enterprise for more than 40 years and always finish lambs off it.”
April-born lambs from the farm’s 750-ewe flock of North Country Mules and Suffolk x Mules start grazing vegetable waste in early November. They run on it through until finishing, with all lambs sold by about April, explains contract shepherd Nigel Faulkner.
“But we have to make sure there is enough vegetable ground clear in front of them before we start grazing it. There”s no point starting them on cabbages and then pulling them back onto grass before sprout stalks are ready for grazing.”
Lambs start by grazing the remains of Castle Farm’s summer cabbage crop, which is harvested from June onwards, explains Mr Haines. “Once the main cabbage bulb has been cut from the stem secondary growth begins, with two or three smaller cabbages growing off the same stem.
“We have considered a secondary harvest of these, but it isn’t really worthwhile. So we leave them for the sheep.”
But unlike folding on purpose-grown forage crops, such as stubble turnips, lambs are given large folds rather than only a few days allowance, says Mr Faulkner. “It takes a few days for lambs to acquire a taste for the crop, so we give them a whole field to go at and leave them to it.”
Before being turned onto vegetables, lambs are crutched, worm drenched and given a clostridial vaccination. “After this there’s no need to touch them again, as they’re always going onto clean ground, so worms aren’t a problem.”
However, while some may be tempted to belly shear lambs as well as crutching them, Mr Haines reckons this is a bad move. “We tried it once, but then when lambs need bellying out before we sell them there is little wool to take off, so they are never clean enough.”
Lambs with foot problems are treated before they”re turned onto vegetable crops and Mr Faulkner says once grazing vegetables there are few if any feet problems.”
Once the cabbage, calabrese and cauliflower waste is eaten lambs will move onto sprout stalks and this is what really finishes lambs well, believes Mr Haines. “Sprout stems have sugary cores and this is what lambs go for, eating stalks right down to ground level. Lambs come off sprouts with good firm flesh, exactly what buyers like.”
Most lambs are sold liveweight through Worcester Market and Mr Haines says once buyers have had lambs they come back for more. “We market about 100 lambs a week and prefer to keep it to small numbers, rather than take 250 one week and none the next.
“Buyers want a continuity of supply and sending a smaller number of lambs each week helps keep that supply in front of them.”
Breed choice is also important for Mr Haines’ system and he reckons Suffolks are the best bet for finishing off vegetables. “We use Charollais tups on Suffolk cross ewes, but their lambs tend to get fat too soon, at lighter weights than we like. Also they’re not as long as the Suffolks and our buyers want longer lambs.”
While Mr Haines says it is difficult to put a cost on the system, he says neighbouring sheep producers have paid up to £98/ha (£40/acre) to graze sprouts in the past. “For us the vegetables are a waste product, so the biggest cost is time fencing fields and belly shearing dirty lambs.”
But it’s not just lambs which benefit, with ewes grazing sprout stalks both before and after lambing. “But with ewes it’s essential to ensure they have plenty of feed in front of them.
“When you strip graze ewes on sprouts they tend to gorge themselves and with it being such a bulky food there is the risk of prolapses,” he adds.