Replacing 22% of your flock each year can be costly, particularly when you rely on buying at market. Coupled to that is the chance of buying in stock that could undermine your own flock management principles.
Chibolton Down Farms is known as somewhere that has promoted innovation in the sheep industry, with the Ridley Rappa fencing system invented there more than 25 years ago.
But the Hampshire-based shepherd believes it’s not only management systems that require tweaking to optimise production efficiency. “For years we have been altering systems to increase production efficiency, but we continue having the same problems year on year. Changing breeding system will be a longer process, but we hope it will deliver a long-term, sustainable system tailored to our needs.”
And with 1850 ewes, it will take a few years before the changeover is complete. Last year saw the farm commence this change in breeding policy, lambing 150 shearling Lleyns bought as an experiment in 2005.
“The mule is a good ewe and serves our lowland system well. However, with replacement rates of 22%, any health improvements we make are somewhat counteracted by bought-in replacements.
“We experimented with a few other options, but wanted a breed which had a large enough pool of genetic diversity to suit our intensive lowland system and were pleased with the results. Even as shearlings they reared 160%.”
With the support of farm manager Andrew Procter, the decision was made to purchase a further 400 Lleyn shearlings in 2006, put to a Lleyn tup for the current season, with the aim of creating a closed flock by 2008.
“Having a closed flock will enable us to concentrate on breeding for specific traits, rather than culling just to bring in another set of unknown genetics the following year,” reckons Mr Fletcher.
“This is one of the reasons we have put in place an Electronic ID system, which I researched following a RMIF producer club meeting. Each Lleyn in the flock has an electronic tag and is marked either up or down on specific traits. Scoring can be weighted to consider particular conditions, such as whether lameness is due to stock being grazed on roots or whether it is footrot, with the latter being culled.”
A handheld reader enables information to be collected when handling is taking place, but Mr Fletcher hopes to install a panel reader in the race in the near future, making the recording process less time consuming. “We have gone from a typical lambing time notepad to having crucial information on a laptop at our fingertips,” he explains. “This not only allows us to record weight gain and growth rates, but disease levels, worm burden and lameness, allowing us to select on both genetic and physical profile.
“Anthelmintic resistance is a real problem the sheep industry faces, particularly in our lowland situation using high stocking densities. We carry out faecal egg counts regularly on-farm and measure resistance levels by testing pre- and post-drenching.
“Because of stocking rate, we run the risk of increasing resistance, which is why we need to concentrate on breeding a more resilient ewe to stand the burden,” he adds.
Better maternal scoring
Early lambers are lambed at the end of February, mostly outside in purpose-built yards. “The bulk of lambing is done within two weeks. However, this will change as we make the switch to lambing in the field, but I hope to reduce the labour requirement with better maternal scoring.
“Although there may be a drop in overall lambing percentage from the switch, I expect the difference in scanning percentage to lambs raised will be reduced with the Lleyns and the overall drop will be offset by the benefits brought by improved health status.”
Mules scanned this year at about 210%, with two year-old Lleyns scanning at 184%. After scanning ewes are separated into groups and brought into lambing yards two weeks prior to lambing.
They are fed a complete-diet flat-rate ration consisting of high dry matter silage, soya, wheat and minerals through an adapted feeder wagon. Feed tests and seasonal silage analyses allow the ration to be tailored to individual groups and vet advice is sought to adjust the ration accordingly.
“Ewes are condition-scored regularly throughout the pre-lambing period and separated when necessary, with particular attention paid to ewes carrying triplets,” explains Mr Fletcher.
And it isn’t just at lambing that care is taken in getting feed and nutrition levels right, with ewes blood tested at weaning to monitor vitamin levels. Supplements are then tailored to meet these requirements.
With a barren percentage of 1.5% this year, Mr Fletcher believes vaccination is one of the key factors of flock management, spending about £5/ewe as shearlings, although it is hoped that becoming a closed flock will reduce the need for certain vaccinations and hence overall costs.
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