Grass growth during the mild autumn and early winter has spared Aled Jones from what could have been a difficult winter, reports Robert Davies
When foot and mouth restrictions disrupted marketing movements of sheep off the farm, Aled Jones feared his dependence on deferred grazing, rather than hay or silage for winter feeding, would leave him in big trouble.
“Our Inverdale Texel-cross ewe lambs, Mules and store lambs were with us for up to a month longer than normal, and I thought it had cost us our winter feed,” he says.
“But the grass just kept growing and we are ending the year with enough grass for a normal winter and ewes in very good condition.”
Winter rationing is a key grassland management issue from August onwards. Mr Jones aims to use rotational grazing, topping and the exclusion of sheep to provide enough herbage of reasonable quality to support the relatively low winter stocking rate.
“If I get the balance wrong we end up short of feed or with dead, useless material. This year the weather has helped [pasture] recovery from carrying too many sheep in late summer.”
The other key component of Mr Jones system is feed blocks. Two types are used a standard block for all ewes until they are scanned at the end of January, when ewes carrying twins get a softer, high-energy block costing £10/t more.
He has ordered 10t of each and the overall cost averaged £280/t, £20/t up on 2006. “Fortunately, the increased price has been offset a bit, as conditions allowed us to delay introducing blocks for a fortnight.”
Ewes on the blocks are closely monitored to ensure they are taking enough not to lose or gain too much weight. Ewe lambs get access to grass and supplementary concentrate buckets costing £500/t. “This may seem expensive, but it means they can be wintered at home. We avoid the cost of tack and transportand ensure they continue to grow.”
If the weather deteriorates and there is snow, ewe lambs will be the first to get some of the £400-worth of hay for emergency feeding.
Scanning results in January were disappointing, possibly as a result of the dry summer of 2006, and Mr Jones hopes for a lambing percentage of 150% this year.
In January, 400 ewes will be carrying Inverdale Texel-sired lambs, compared with 320 in 2007, and he already has a contract to sell the females for £48 a head.
The 230 ewe lambs sold this year realised £46 a head at a time when Mules were selling for £35 each. “The shepherd on one of the two farms that took our Inverdale-crosses is very happy with the sheep.
“I like the stability offered by a system like the one Innovis is operating. If buyers like what they get, there is potential for many more to breed ewe lambs on contract.”
Mr Jones also wants to see more stable finished lamb markets. Members of the discussion group linked to the farm, which is a Farming Connect demonstration unit, met a buyer for a leading meat processor, who suggested they should consider forming a producer group.
“He said abattoirs are interested in signing fixed-price contracts with groups of farmers, but he wanted about 40,000 consistent quality lambs a year. I get the impression abattoirs feel there is a shortage of lambs on the horizon.”
Mr Jones estimates that his average finished lamb price was £8 a head down over the whole season. About 300 lambs went as stores to one buyer, though about half would probably have graded.
“The week they went off, those ready for killing would have made £30 a head at Oswestry, but I sold the lot for £28 a head to one man and had no commission or transport costs to pay.”
Just as Mr Jones thought that all the problems of 2007 were over, he heard that a neighbouring farm had been hit by sheep scab. “Up to 5000 sheep on six farms could have been in contact, so we have all agreed on joint action and struck a deal with a drug company to get an injectable treatment at a favourable price.
“It will cost me about 60p a head for the group of 300 ewes and rams that could have been in contact, but as it acts as a wormer as well, it makes it more reasonable.”