Easier care sheep suit Welsh College

Easier-care sheep and environmentally friendly grazing systems were on the agenda at Gelli Aur College‘s annual press day.

The college farm’s “keep it simple – keep it profitable” approach to sheep management is working well.

The 150-ewe, low-input flying flock was established on the Carmarthenshire unit to teach students practical sheep husbandry without competing too much for grazing with two large dairy herds, particularly early in the year.

Farm manager John Owen says the low-cost system is one possible option for lowland farmers who are not keen on chasing high performance using pedigree sheep.

Three- and four-year-old Cheviot x Welsh draft ewes are bought from a single source and are not given concentrate feed, vitamins, minerals or most vaccines during the two years they spend on the farm.

For much of the summer, they graze a designated area away from land needed for dairy cows, part of which is later shut off to provide deferred grazing between January and March. Autumn grazing is provided by allowing ewes to clean up fields that are due to provide first-cut silage.

The flock lambs outside in late April and early May and there are few assisted births. “No members of farm staff are assigned to the sheep, so I keep an eye on them, although they are experienced mothers and generally look after themselves,” says Mr Owen.

“Ewes have been vaccinated on their farm of origin and are well covered, so we only treat any lambs that show signs of a problem. The same is true of symptoms of trace element deficiency.

“I think too many sheep farmers buy expensive minerals that are unnecessary.”

But Mr Owen knows conditions on the flood-prone Towy Valley farm mean sheep must be treated for liver fluke before tupping.

In 2008, scanning indicated a potential lambing percentage of 130 and the flock achieved a sold lambing percentage of 110.

“We have found losses increase as soon as ewes are run for more than two lamb crops, and the cull value also falls sharply. If they go after two years and we watch the market to time sale date carefully, we can just about recover the original ewe purchase price.”

But the real secret of optimising profitability is to have the right type of lamb to sell through the right market.

Mr Owen says a link-up with breeding company Inovis is providing both. The college hires Texel rams carrying the Inverdale gene and sells the ewe lambs produced through the company for breeding, at a pre-arranged price.

In 2008 the females had to weigh 34kg to meet the terms of the contract and realise £48, which they all did. Ram lambs are finished and sell well, their conformation benefiting from Texel genetics. “Our system may be low-cost and very simple, but we can produce the type of breeding female and prime lamb that the market wants, without competing with the dairy cows,” says Mr Owen.

But he accepts and understands why many producers would prefer the challenge of running a more intensive and productive sheep management system.

Easier-care sheep suit Gelli Aur because they demand little management input and can produce a product demanded by the market