TUPPING TIME is barely finished for many northern flocks, but one Lancs farm has already started lambing for the early spring market.

The first lambs were born at Mike Cornthwaite’s farm at Bolton-by-Bowland, Clitheroe, in early November and will be reared on a low-cost system geared to make the most out of early lambing.

The farm’s January-lambing flock used to be housed for the entire period from lambing to sale time, but three years ago a bold step was taken to slash production costs and turn ewes and lambs outside.

Despite its northerly location, sheltered, well-drained fields at Closes Hall Farm provide the right conditions and some “green bite” to enable housing and associated costs to be cut.

This year’s lambing started earlier than usual, but Mr Cornthwaite is convinced the system he’s developed to cope with his traditional early January lambers will have no problem dealing with this earlier group.

“We keep costs down by using a ewe that breeds naturally out of season and doesn”t need housing. We want big ewes that can produce good-quality, early-maturing lambs.

 “The system is designed to achieve the best margin out of the early-season premium prices for spring lamb by cutting out the costs of keeping ewes and lambs inside,” says Mr Cornthwaite, who also runs a dairy herd.

This part of Lancs, on the edge of the Trough of Bowland, is not renowned for its low rainfall, but Mr Cornthwaite has identified fields on the farm that are sufficiently free-draining to cope with stock soon after Christmas.

 “I can’t say we turn ewes and lambs out on to a lot of grass – that would be difficult here. But at least they”re outside with something green to eat and are costing much less to keep than they would do with a roof over their heads. It’s also healthier for them.”

The early lambers are Poll Dorset x North of England Mule ewes which are bred from the farm”s main April-lambing flock.

“The April-born Poll Dorset crosses are lambed as hoggs the following April and the strongest are tupped again in August for the early January lambing group. Other replacements come into the early-lambing flock as two-shears. This system means we keep replacement costs down and maintain a closed flock status.”

There are about 180 January lambers – put to predominantly Suffolk tups – and 900 North of England Mule ewes lambing in April.

Poll Dorset crosses are encouraged to cycle by putting tups into an adjoining field. Tupping rate is about one tup to 30 ewes. January lambers receive no special treatment in late autumn, but are housed in mid-December, about four weeks pre-lambing. Lambing percentage is about 185%.

 “We used to keep ewes and lambs inside,” says Mr Cornthwaite. “However, they perform equally well outside providing the field is relatively dry and we get feeding right. We feed up to 1kg in the four weeks before lambing and find ewes are in good condition – far better condition than spring lambing ewes that have carried lambs all winter.”

 Having to cope with fields that traditionally don’t start to green up until late March/April can work in favour of achieving higher growth rates, reckons Mr Cornthwaite. “Because there isn”t much grass for lambs to eat in January, they eat more creep. This ensures they fulfil their growth potential.”

Body Condition

Ewes are fed 1kg daily in two feeds after lambing to ensure milk yields and body condition are maintained. “Ewes need looking after and checking regularly, but they don”t milk any less just because they”re outside in January,” he adds.

The early lambing system enables part of the ewe flock to produce a higher-value lamb and to be grazed away from home on rented moorland during summer. This alleviates grazing pressure from spring lambers and the demands of the dairy herd.

 “We received up to £80 for lambs this spring, but the early market is fickle,” says Mr Cornthwaite. “Costs have to be kept as low as possible on this type of system because the premium prices can be short-lived.

 “The most important element of the system for us is the ewe. The Dorset-cross will lamb out of season and the modern type is a bigger ewe with more frame. She’ll produce plenty of lambs and she’ll milk well, even when she’s outside in the middle of a northern winter. The influence of the ewe can”t be underestimated.”