Sending large numbers of ewes up to 200 miles from home for the winter may seem expensive, but a Sussex producer believes it still represents the most cost-effective way of wintering sheep.
For Udimore, Rye-based Frank Langrish, who runs more than 5000 ewes, sending ewes away to keep is a traditional practice which still fits modern flock management.
But while ewes were traditionally sent to dairy farms, now their pastures are more likely to be grasslands entered into environmentally sensitive area (ESA) or countryside stewardship schemes (CSS).
“Despite increasing fuel costs, away-wintering still represents good value, particularly for our Romney ewes, which are able to survive well on little grass.
“Grass quality on ESA and CSS land may be lower than the dairy pastures ewes have historically grazed, but with Romney ewes stocked at as little as 1/acre there is enough nutrition to keep them for up to five months.”
Fencing is one big problem which faces many farmers away-wintering stock and on this front Mr Langrish says many landowners could lose out in future unless land is well fenced. “The minimum needed is a stockproof ring fence around larger blocks of land.
Without that we won’t contemplate taking grazing, as it costs us too much to electric fence large areas.
Last year Mr Langrish reckons away wintering cost an average of 11 a ewe, including transport, which he says is much cheaper than keeping them at home.
“With some ewes away from home from October to March, there is no cheaper way of keeping them.
In summer ewes graze at up to 6/acre to keep on top of grass growth on our marshland pastures, but it would never carry that many ewes in winter.
“Without away-wintering we would have to introduce supplementary feeds and consider housing some or all of the ewes for some of the winter.
With ewes lambing outside in April, there doesn’t seem much point housing them for January and February.”
In future, he believes wintering costs may come down a little as more land comes back into grass as a result of single farm payment and environmental management.
But knowing the quality of grass ewes are heading to for winter is essential to ensure you have the right number of sheep on the right farm, he says.
“Grass quality can vary greatly, particularly on some of the environmental-type grazing we take, so sending too many ewes to one place could be disastrous.”
A block of land must also be large enough to take a reasonable number of ewes.
“Transport costs are high and rising all the time, so we need to send full lorry loads to most places, or have several farms close together which take a load between them,” he says.
It helps to have regular contact with hauliers, as it is possible ewes can be transported in one direction or the other as a return load.
While ewes are away their summer grazing receives a decent break and has a chance to build up good covers before ewes come home for lambing.
“This also helps reduce worm burdens on pastures.”