Lamb finishing brings challenges

Challenging weather has made it difficult for many farmers to finish lambs – Dinas Island Farm in Pembrokeshire is no exception. Debbie James reports

The Perkins always aim to get all lambs sold before Christmas but there were still 320 on farm as the new year dawned.

In total 600 lambs had to be finished indoors on creep feed, something not done since the system was changed six years ago. Due to low grass dry matter (DM), housing the lambs and feeding them 1kg a head a day of coarse mixture with ad-lib silage was the only answer. Lambs also needed to be off the fields to ensure adequate grazing for the ewes.

Surplus lambs coming onto the market affected the price when they were ready to sell. “This means we have been averaging £60 a head instead of the £70 we were paid for last year’s lamb crop,” said Neil, who runs the business with his father, Roger, and wife, Lynda.

Housing was available for these later finishing lambs in the shed which accommodates the heifer calves arriving on the farm in February.

Grass quality

Grass growth was good in 2012, but quality was lower than usual. This has meant there has been surplus silage to sell, which has helped counterbalance the additional costs of feed and labour to finish the lambs. Also, fertiliser usage was lower than planned so there are stocks to carry forward into the spring.

The first batch of 1,098 ewes was scanned on 29 December at 178%. This was consistent with last year’s result, although it was noticeable that many of last year’s ewe lambs, now coming through as yearlings, were carrying singles. The challenge of growing the yearlings was no different to finishing the fat lambs.

“They were still growing when they went to the tup so their nutritional demands were greater than the ewes,” said Neil. “Because the ewes are fully grown, the poor season didn’t affect them too much. After weaning they just require maintenance but yearlings need more.”

The goal is to achieve the highest percentage of twins and the Perkins are confident this year’s anomaly can be rectified next season. The second batch, scanned on 11 January, averaged 197%.

Lleyn rams went in with the 1,100 Lleyns on 1 October. Two weeks later the crossbred ewes were tupped with a terminal sire. A fortnight later, rams were turned in with the ewe lambs which will lamb outdoors; at the same time chaser rams fitted with raddles were turned in with the previous two batches to achieve a tight lambing pattern.

All the raddle-marked ewes will be lambed outdoors with the ewe lambs. This means that lambing in the shed will be finished in four weeks, enabling concentration of extra labour.

Ewes were housed on 15 December, with lambing due to start on 20 February.

“When we tupped the ewes, we kept them on a level plane of nutrition to keep triplets at bay,” said Roger. Triplets and quads account for 12% of the Lleyn ewes scanned and this could present challenges at lambing, so investment in an automatic milk rearing machine to rear the triplets is under consideration. “Triplets and quads may only be 12% of births but they take a third of the overall time to look after,” said Neil. “We have about 200 lambs to adopt and although we still want to do as many adoptions as possible, a machine could ease the workload and costs.”

Last year he turned out 70 ewes with triplets to grass where ewes were not available to adopt their lambs. “We had to compensatory feed all four animals whereas if we had taken one lamb off we would only have had one animal to feed because the ewe would have had sufficient milk to rear the other lambs,” he said.

While there is a cost to artificially rearing lambs, there is an increased risk of mastitis in the ewe at weaning if she rears three lambs. The machine will also remove some of the pressure at the busiest time of the year and there is also a cost benefit in getting these lambs off the farm earlier. Any lambs reared on the machine would stay indoors and be sold fat at 12 weeks.

“They will be the first animals to go rather than the last and it will also mean that we won’t have to run around the fields with creep feed,” said Roger.

Silage quality was down on the 2011 analysis. In 2011, the blend of silage fed to the ewes analysed at 45% DM, protein of 14.1% and an ME of 11.2. This exceptional quality meant that supplementary feeding was kept to a minimum. This year the dry matter is 35%, protein 11.5% and ME is down to 10.

The ewes were fed silage only at housing but four weeks prior to lambing a blend containing a Rumenco Lifeline protein meal will be included in the ration, at 100g/day per lamb carried.

Last year 250g of concentrates was fed but lower silage quality this year would have meant increasing the ration to 500g. “We spoke to a specialist from the Scottish Agricultural College at a recent event and he suggested putting in a bit more digestible undegradable protein (DUP) in the ration,” said Neil.

Concentrate feed

“We had planned on lifting the levels of concentrate fed but did not want to risk overfeeding and bring on prolapses. By giving higher levels of DUP together with other components through the Lifeline meal we will have a better quality ration, as well as helping to increase quality and quantity of colostrum in the ewes.”

The cost will be slightly higher. “If we fed 500g of cake to twin-bearing ewes it would cost us 12.5p per ewe per day whereas Lifeline and 250g of cake will cost 18p. But the ewes will be getting exactly what they need for a relatively low extra cost of £1.50 per head for the winter,” Neil added.

Before housing, a different grazing system was trialled with good results. The ewes were grazed very tightly, at 100 ewes/acre, and moved daily, which resulted in less damage to pasture.

“If the sheep are moved daily they tend to eat as soon as they enter a fresh area of grazing and then lie down,” said Neil. “Even on wet days the mess they make in a paddock is just surface mess and within two weeks you can’t tell they have been there. It means that the pasture will be more rested for spring growth.”

Health in the closed flock has been very good this year although the unknown threat of Schmallenberg is a concern. “So long as the third batch scans well, at least we have a positive base to start from,” said Neil.

Four weeks prior to lambing the flock will be vaccinated to boost immunity against clostridial disease and pasteurellosis. They will also be given Tracesure trace element boluses.

Joining the Perkins for lambing this year will be two students, both farmers’ sons from North Wales, as well as Neil’s brother, Phil, and two additional helpers.

The infrastructure doesn’t allow for all 1,600 ewes to be lambed in one batch but this will change next year. “We want to make the system work for us so we will adapt some of the sheds to get lambing done in one go. It will be more intensive but it would mean the lambs would all roughly be the same age at grass and for treatments,” said Neil. “Our aim is for compact lambing and I believe we can still tighten it up further.”

The first of the spring-born heifers reared on contract at Dinas Island Farm will arrive in the next few weeks. The Perkins rear 200 spring-born heifer calves and 100 autumn-born for Pembrokeshire dairy farmer, Will Prichard. The system has changed slightly this year with more focus on the pre-weaning stage.

“We now have the heifers for a slightly shorter time and therefore payments on daily liveweight gains don’t match the new system quite so well. Under the new agreement, Will decides the feeding regime post-weaning and we calculate a price to match,” said Neil.

The autumn-born heifers leave the farm at six months and the spring-born at three months, with the time they are on the farm having reduced as the sheep flock has gradually increased.

“When we first changed the system we had surplus sheds and grass while the ewe numbers were lower. It was always our aim to build up sheep numbers gradually from our own replacements,” said Neil. There is room in the system to rear three batches of 200 calves a year but from only one farm because of TB regulations.

One part of the business that has been running to capacity is the holiday cottage diversification. All five cottages were fully occupied over the festive period.

“We had an exceptional holiday period and the cottages kept us very busy. We are hoping for a busy period as we head towards Easter too,” said Roger.

More on this topic

More from our Management Matters farms

More on Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year 2012

See more