Sheep breed switch brings outdoor lambing cost savings

Running a labour-efficient, low-cost flock was the driving force behind Marc Jones’ decision to switch from indoor lambing Texel-crosses, to lambing Lleyn ewes outdoors.

Traditionally, Mr Jones, who farms in partnership with his father David and mother Jane at Trefnant Hall Farm on the Powis Estate, Wales, was lambing 1,200 Texel-crosses indoors.

But now he has reduced this flock to 400 and has a flock of 500 Lleyns, which he plans to increase to 1,000 by retaining 200-300 home-bred replacements a year.

Replacement of the Texel flock should hopefully be completed in the next two years, he says.

Breed choice

The move to Lleyns started in September 2009 with Mr Jones buying 150 Lleyn ewes, a breed known to lamb outside easily.

He also chose Lleyns because of their good performance on grass and their increased efficiency due to smaller size.

“Because they only weigh 62kg, we can keep more a hectare [than the Texel-crosses], which is key to running a profitable business,” says Mr Jones, whose profit a hectare stands at £332.14 (see table for financial breakdown).

Sheep enterprise financial breakdown a head 2014
Output  £108.72
Variable costs £47.06
Gross margin £61.66
Fixed costs £34.15
Profit before rent and finance £27.15
Profit a hectare (before partnership profitshare) £332.1

Since the changeover began on the 202ha farm, outwintering the Lleyns has resulted in significant feed cost savings.

Feed savings

Strip grazing 4ha of swedes will feed 500 sheep for two-and-a-half months. Mr Jones says it is the forage crop’s exceptional 13t DM/ha this year that has made the high stocking rate possible.

“Over the winter period it costs £4.00-4.50 a ewe to keep them outdoors on swedes – that includes land rental, direct drilling, seed cost and fertiliser. By comparison, the Texel-crosses cost £25 a head to keep indoors for the same period – including straw, concentrates, silage, machinery and labour,” he explains.

In addition to swedes being a high-energy, low-cost feed source, Mr Jones says feeding forage crops over the winter saves grass, which is lower in energy, but crucially, higher in protein.

Ewes can then be moved on to these pastures three to four weeks before lambing, when they need the higher protein content in their diet for colostrum and milk production.

Last year due to understocking, the grass quickly got away from them. However, learning as he goes, Mr Jones has steadily increased the area put into forage crops, this year planting an extra 4ha.

A knock-on benefit of this comes from the larger area of reseeding taking place after the forage crops have been used.

“Stocking rate has been able to increase by a further 100 sheep a year over the last few years due to the greater productivity of the long-term high-sugar ryegrass reseeds compared with permanent pasture,” explains Mr Jones.

The extra Lleyns in the flock will also help keep on top of the grass on steeper ground that can’t go into silage, he adds.

Fixed costs

By switching to a fully outdoor system, he also aims to lower the farm’s fixed costs of £34.15 a head (before rent and finance) by 30%. At the moment more than 70% of this is made up of  buildings, labour, power and machinery costs.

“Once fully converted we can get rid of our forage wagon, one of our tractors, save on labour and the buildings would no longer be needed to house stock over winter,” he says.

In fact, once fully converted and in addition to the reduction in fixed costs, Mr Jones calculates each Lleyn will be worth £15 a head more than the Texel-crosses, based on a reduced feed bill and keeping the flock’s ewe lambs as breeding replacements.

Building up the flock

But building up the flock hasn’t been plain sailing. After buying in 100 ewes in 2010, Mr Jones found the second batch of ewes were scanning consistently 15-20% lower than the first, which was averaging at 180%, the ideal percentage for an outdoor lambing breed.

As Mr Jones performance records all sheep and has been Signet-recorded for five years, he was able to use his EID records to easily group the flock according to age, body condition score, health or batch in an attempt to identify the cause of the low scanning percentage.

“Both groups had been managed the same, so it was clear the only thing it could be was genetics,” says Mr Jones.

As he was still building up the flock of Lleyns, getting rid of all those with sub-optimal fertility was not an option.  Instead Mr Jones used EBVs to carefully select which rams to use on this batch to compensate for their lower prolificacy.

“In the past I used to focus on the overall index figure of the rams, but I was advised by Signet to look at specific traits, so I’ve focused on litter size and faecal eggs counts as we also have a problem with triple wormer resistance,” explains Mr Jones.

Focusing on traits most likely to tackle the flock’s issues and ensuring bought-in rams are in the top 1% of the breed for both maternal and carcass traits will maximise genetic progress.

Not settling for genetics alone to improve ewe fertility, Mr Jones flushed the ewes by rotationally grazing them with an additional 20t of fodder beet scattered in the fields, costing 80p/head.

“The grass is usually quite wet in November, so the fodder beet should’ve given them an extra energy boost before tupping,” he says.



The Lleyn tups go in on 5 November at a ratio of 1:90 ewes and 1:50 ewe lambs. High-index rams individually mate the Lleyns for one-and-a-half cycles, before a New Zealand Suffolk is put in to catch any not in-lamb.  Lambing begins on 1 April to suit optimum grass growth.

In the run-up and during lambing, ewes are set stocked at a rate of five an acre for those with twins and 15-20 for singles and checked three times a day.

“The biggest problem is the singles getting too big. It’s amazing how tight you need to keep them – you think there’s no grass in front, but you still need to keep them tighter,” says Mr Jones.

At birth lambs are tagged and cross-referenced with their mothers. Set stocking continues until lambs are big enough to rotationally graze with their mothers.

Flock future

Performance recording has been a vital tool for Mr Jones to assess individual ewe productivity.

Eight-week lamb weight is the key performance indicator for Mr Jones, who says lamb growth is purely due to the ewe at this stage.

“Any ewes whose lambs have died are culled at this stage [eight weeks post lambing] as it is usually down to poor mothering ability.”

At 21 weeks, lamb weights are measured again, along with scans of muscle and fat depth. The figures can identify ewes that produced poor lambs and these will be culled at weaning along with sheep in the bottom 10% for their Signet figures.

Lambing ease, lamb deaths and scanning percentage of ewes are also recorded to aid flock management decisions.

“The aim is to increase the genetic progress of the whole flock, not just a select few,” he adds.

To further improve productivity, Mr Jones has invested about £4,000 into becoming maedi visna (MV) accredited. He believes the long-term effect of being free of disease on production will be huge.

“Once we have built Lleyn numbers up we will be able to sell breeding ewe lambs at MV Accredited Lleyn Society Sales. The MV accreditation will hopefully give us a premium of £15-20 over non MV accredited flocks.”