Despite lamb finishing proving to be tough going at Tregeiriog Farm and concerns over falling prices, Aled Jones remains reasonably optimistic going into winter. Robert Davies reports
With 350 lambs still to market, Aled Jones is concerned that they are not finishing as fast as they were a month ago. “We have grass, but it appears to be much less nutritious, and lamb prices, which were running £10/head up on last year, are now falling”. He would like to reduce stock numbers to shut off more areas to provide deferred grazing during the winter.
A total of 42 Mule lambs has already been sold as stores at Oswestry Market for £1/kg, and a finisher, who bought store lambs from the farm for £22/head in 2007, is due to visit again. “He told me they did well and left a good margin, so I am hoping to get at least £36/head this year,” Mr Jones says.
Another private buyer returned to the farm for the fourth year to purchase 185 Mule ewe lambs for £55/head, compared with £43 in 2007. “He was very pleased when none of the last batch died and they averaged £90 a head as yearlings.”
Lambs that are finished will probably be grouped with those of other producers to make up loads for Welsh Country Foods on Anglesey. To date, the 20 members of an informal marketing group have sent more than 5000 lambs to the company and most have been happy with their returns.
“There have been a few grumbles about grading results, but I feel that we are forming a good relationship with the abattoir and could possibly send 10,000 lambs there next season.” The last consignment Mr Jones sent averaged 260p/kg, or 20p/kg less than lambs realised two weeks earlier.
Time for change
It is not the first time that some lambs have finished slowly, so £1000 has been invested in two high-index Beulah rams.
Mr Jones has also sold 27 ewes that had not performed well on the farm’s low input system and these averaged £47.40/head. Another 42 cull ewes averaged £27/head. “Trade has collapsed since then and we would be lucky to get £15/head now.”
The falling nutritive value of autumn grass is being blamed for the fact that over 100 of the Inverdale Texel-sired ewe lambs produced under contract for a breeding technology company have not reached the 40kg weight that guarantees a payment of £48/head.
They could go at lower price, but Mr Jones still hopes they will put on extra weight, while breeders are looking for flock replacements.
With grass continuing to grow, 200 head of cattle have been brought in temporarily to clear herbage that is too long for sheep, which saves spending on topping and earns weekly tack payments.
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Taking no risks with bluetongue
Despite rumours about possible side-effects of bluetongue vaccination, and claims that stock on hill units are unlikely to be at serious risk, Mr Jones was not prepared to risk not vaccinating.
Wales did not become a protection zone until September and he did consider whether it would be better to buy the vaccine, but wait until just before the high-risk period in 2009 before using it. “I talked it over with my vet and decided to go ahead, especially as he said he had seen no adverse effects from the bluetongue vaccine, so all ewes have been vaccinated at a cost of 55p/head.”
Winter management plans have already been made. Sheep have been excluded from large areas to provide grazing at the turn of the year, and a neighbour has agreed to supply 4t of hay for £80/t. This will be fed to any sheep that have to be housed.
Looking ahead to the spring Mr Jones is planning to tackle the farm’s creeping thistle problem. He is not convinced about the efficacy of sprays that do not harm clover and also has doubts about using a weed wiper. “We will probably treat areas where there is a serious thistle problem using a conventional sprayer and put the clover back in later.”
As winter approaches Mr Jones is reasonably upbeat. The ultra simple, low input management system means the farm is largely cushioned from increases in the cost of fertiliser, fuel and energy.
Tregeiriog Farm is one of the demonstration farms involved in the Welsh Assembly’s Farming Connect project. As a result, it must host two open days each year for farmers and consultants.
At the latest event Charlie Morgan (pictured talking to farmers), an Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences grassland specialist, raised eyebrows when he suggested that they should consider taking silage from selected areas.
This, he said, could be stored as big bales on land grazed by ewes in the spring and used to buffer deferred grazing during the critical weeks before lambing. “Spring is a long time coming on a hill farm like this and grass is difficult to come by at lambing time,” Mr Morgan said. “A strategy is needed to fill this hungry gap in the most cost-effective way.”
The most realistic option was to conserve some of the abundant late summer grass, when sward height was not suitable for finishing lambs. “Taking a silage cut would encourage clover and you would be able to finish lambs faster on the fresh re-growth.”
Silage had been made before the farm switched to the present low input system, but it was difficult to make silage of the quality needed by twin-bearing ewes from upland swards.
Mr Morgan admitted that current management made excellent use of grazed grass, costing about 6p/kg of dry matter to produce. Though silage cost 13p/kg DM, he maintained that making enough for about four weeks would allow stocking to increase by over 100 ewes.
However, he conceded that only using grazed grass did mean that it was possible to farm without applying phosphate and potash, and then rely on clover to supply nitrogen. “But the high rainfall means you have to watch pH and spread lime when it is needed,” Mr Morgan said.
Open day visitors also learned that flock health was given a high priority, particularly as Mr Jones had been worried about the impact of significant feet problems on sheep performance. “We try to keep problems in check and cull sheep that regularly get footrot, but wanted to do more.”
Veterinary consultant Kate Hovers checked the flock to make sure that the problems were not caused by other conditions, such as contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD).
She found signs of bacterial footrot in 24% of the sheep in 2007, but only half of infected sheep were lame. The problem existed despite careful hoof trimming, using antibiotics and the regular use of a foot bath containing 3% formalin. The incidence was high enough to affect overall flock performance, so she advised a blitz on the infection, including vaccination. As a result only 12% of sheep now have any kind of foot problems.