Upping ram power and moving lambs back on to grass at scanning are some of the adjustments a Lincolnshire farm hopes will make breeding ewe lambs successful.
This autumn will be the fourth time Chris and Louise Elkington of Gelston Lamb, Grantham, have bred ewe lambs.
Previous years have seen either low scanning percentages or difficult lambings because lambs were on too high a plane of nutrition, explains Mr Elkington.
But the Elkingtons have persevered in the belief that that running 150 empty sheep all winter seems wasteful.
“If we can get 90-100% lambs reared that will be fine,” says Mr Elkington, who runs an AHDB Strategic Farm. “It’s not any more investment really and they make much better shearlings and mature ewes.”
See also: Guide to breeding from ewe lambs
Five key changes
During a recent AHDB webinar the Elkingtons listed five key changes they would make over the next year to improve the growth and rearing percentages of their ewe lambs.
1. Ram power
- Strategy: Ewe lambs are bred to compact Roussin rams for one cycle after two cycles with a teaser. Roussins are picked for their good conformation but are smaller and easy to lamb, providing nutrition is managed well. They produce reasonable lambs that can be drawn at 36-38kg.
- Previously: They used a tup-to-ewe lamb ratio of 1:50 or 1:75.
- Now: This November five tups (three Roussins and two Chamoise) will be used to increase the ratio to 1:30 and ensure more get mated.
2. Fortnightly weighing
- Strategy: The farm has weighed lambs weekly to monitor performance closely and make interventions early.
- Previously: This summer the ewe lambs were weighed every week while the lambs were on the home farm. However, this could be one of the factors limiting growth.
- Now: The farm will weigh lambs fortnightly in the hope that this is the right balance between monitoring daily liveweight gains and minimising growth checks
3. Clover consistency
- Strategy: The farm is trying to reduce reliance on bought-in feed by rotational grazing and planting herbal and clover leys.
- Previously: This summer ewe lambs suffered from growth checks while rotationally grazing a red clover aftermath.
- Now: Next summer the grazing will be managed to keep them on white clover and grass, or the herbal ley.
4. Earlier mineral bolus
- Strategy: The land at Gelston has a known iodine and selenium deficiency. This is partly why the Elkingtons weigh so often, so they can correct this with a mineral drench if needed and check if boluses are working.
- Previously: Ewe lambs were bolused in late September 2020 to ensure they had sufficient trace element supply.
- Now: The Elkingtons plan on bolusing ewe lambs four-to-five weeks earlier at weaning in August when they are about 14 weeks old. This should cover them throughout the important post-weaning growth phase and help them reach target tupping weights of 42-43kg.
5. Forage management
- Strategy: About 65ha of grass is grazed near home in the summer and all sheep are outwintered on neighbouring arable farms to rest grassland for 100-120 days
- Previously: The first winter ewe lambs went on to turnips from October until a couple of weeks before lambing. This grew the lambs well and resulted in 105% scanning, but foetuses grew too big and everything had to be lambed. The year after, the lambs grazed grass alone and scanned at 50%. The following year, mineral blocks were introduced at grass but scanning rates only lifted to 60%.
- Now: This winter ewe lambs will graze a 40ha block of turnip, forage rape, fodder radish, vetch and phacelia, but importantly, they will be moved on old hay leys in January to ensure foetuses don’t get too big inside them. They will then be moved in mid-March to lambing paddocks two weeks before lambing starts on 10 April.
System at Gelston Lamb
Outdoor lambing flock: About 380 outdoor lambing ewes make up the farm’s “A” flock. Ewes are criss-crossed to maternal performance-recorded Aberfield and Highlander rams and lamb from 1 April. Ewe lambs lamb from 10 April to easy-lambing terminal sires.
Indoor lambing flock: About 175 ewes in the farm’s “B” flock lamb in February/March indoors. Sheep are drafted into the “B” flock if they needed assistance at lambing or had poorer lamb performance.
They are bred to Charollais terminal sires. Fifty ewes will get a Lleyn ram and lamb indoors next year to give female progeny more time to reach tupping weight.
Markets: Most lambs are sold directly through the farm’s butchery (built on-farm last September) and burger business Gelston Lamb. Lambs are drawn at 42-45kg at an R4 or R3H carcass.
About 170 lambs have been sold to Randall Parker this year at an R3L carcass. Cull ewes are either grass finished and sold as mutton or sold at Melton Mowbray market.
Forage: Herbal leys and a red clover ley have been drilled over the last year to improve forage quality and minimise dependence on bought-in feed.
Creep feeding does have a place on the farm as it gives the Elkingtons some control as to when animals can be finished for the butchery, which requires lambs all year round.
Gelston Lamb facts
- 560 ewes and ewe lambs to lamb in 2021
- Mainly Aberfield cross Lleyn
- Ewes bred to Highlander and Aberfield
- All land rented – about 65ha of grassland rented near home
- 20ha (50 acres) stubble turnips, 40ha (100 acres) of cover crops and 28ha (70 acres) of hay leys rented for winter keep
- Reared 147% this year (ewe lambs and ewes)
- Sell most lamb direct – butchery employs one member of staff three days a week
This year’s challenges
To get ewe lambs to tupping weights of 42-43kg (60-65% of a 65-70kg mature ewe) lambs need to be averaging about 125g a head/day.
About 90% of lambs are on course to make this, but the Elkingtons are a little frustrated after ewe lamb growth was very strong earlier in the summer.
Eight-week and 12-week weights were 2kg above the AHDB target of 20kg and 30kg respectively. But post-weaning weights kept dropping when lambs went on to red clover (see graph).
Faecal Egg Counts (FECs) with a FECPAK were done at least fortnightly. Lambs were given an orange drench, an iodine drench and a mineral bolus to help address below-target growth rates.
But despite all efforts to help the lambs, nothing seemed to work until the lambs went into a grass field on grass and white clover field with access to grass and barley pellets.
Dr Liz Genever, independent beef and sheep consultant and the farm’s Strategic Farm adviser, struggled to explain why growth was so disappointing.
“My expectation was they should easily do 125g/day on a red clover rotation,” says Dr Genever. “Some did this, but the average was 115g a head/day.”
A detailed soil health analysis is taking place in that field to check if there are any soil health issues. This will analyse the chemical and physical characteristics of the soil.
“There is the wider question about the Elkingtons system, which is the genetic potential of the stock. If they want to reduce concentrate use, they will have to select from animals that who performed of a more grass-based system.”