Organic flock is purpose built for Downs system

Matching output expectations to farm capabilities has been key to developing an easier-care flock for a Sussex unit.

But easier care doesn’t mean routine shepherding can be abandoned.

Skilled shepherding, detailed recording and attention to detail are crucial in making an extensive system economically viable, explains Peter Sutton, shepherd and part-time lecturer at Plumpton College, East Sussex.

“Many think easier-care management means no-care, which is a common and sometimes costly mistake.

Although the system is extensive, keeping a close eye on flocks is essential to keep on top of any problems that may arise.

“Suiting the system to farm characteristics and objectives must be central in the decision making process.

It is now not financially viable to force production and no one answer provides the miracle cure for all farms,” he advises.

Having redesigned the flock of 700 at Plumpton, Mr Sutton believes he has found an appropriate breed composition and system for their organic low-grade pasture, North Country Cheviots and Lleyns.

“Although you can’t beat a Mule for lambing performance, condition is hard to maintain particularly on our downland pastures.

The Cheviot, despite not giving the number of lambs, produces a market-geared, quality animal.

“As it is difficult to make a difference to our grass, achieving the correct genetic make-up of breeding stock for our system is paramount.”

Mr Sutton goes on to say that pedigree breeders have, to some extent, a responsibility to breed rams to satisfy traits required by the market.

“It can be a losing battle when you successfully breed high-quality ewes and tup them with a ram which doesn’t have equal characteristics.”

A nucleus flock of 250 Cheviots allows Plumpton to breed for selective traits in order to produce an animal more suited to the system.

“By monitoring closely, fluid movement between breeding and commercial flocks is possible, allowing a more cohesive programme,” adds Mr Sutton.

Deciding which selection traits are desirable for individual situations is imperative.

“For Plumpton mothering ability is vital, alongside disease resistance, ease of lambing, udder size/milk production and, where possible, multiple lambing.”

Although Lleyns are known for their easier care characteristics, Mr Sutton is conscious the high lambing percentages they are promoted for would put excess pressure on farm resources.

So the answer lies in a cross, he says.

“By crossing a Cheviot with a Lleyn we are able to achieve another half lamb from every ewe with desired carcass characteristics, ease of lambing and foraging ability.”

Ewes are given supplementary forage prior to lambing only in extreme conditions, but six to seven weeks before lambing, multiples receive a flat rate of 0.5kg a ewe daily of home-grown barley-based mix.

“This is fed until 10 days before lambing, giving ewes the chance settle without associating the vehicle with food and subsequently allowing checks to be made during lambing without disturbance,” he says.

Lambing 530 ewes outdoors in mid-April, Mr Sutton finds one man is sufficient to manage throughout, and almost considers more than one a hindrance.

“I check three times daily so as to leave ewes space without being disturbed at night.

This does heighten the necessity to check thoroughly, as an empty lamb missed may not be there in the morning.”

Due to the organic nature of the farm, animals can only be drenched once yearly, and this is done immediately post-lambing.

The only other way of controlling worm burden is by achieving a clean pasture.

“Worms present the biggest challenge and we rely on a low stocking density of about 4/ha (1-2/acre) and try to rest ground for five months where possible,” explains Mr Sutton.

“Achieving a post-lambing percentage this year of 140%, 10% up on last year, the system is getting numbers which we can finish efficiently on the grass available,” he says.

Eventually it is hoped that by maximising weaning weight up to 30kg, pressure on grass will be lessened and ewe numbers increased to the target of 900.

And this theory produces results, with the first draw yielding multiple lambs at 17kg and grading U3L, comparing favourably with the more traditional Texel cross Mules.

Lambs are marketed through the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-Operative and achieve £2.70/kg, but Mr Sutton says transport costs, amounting to 15p/kg, reduce that margin.

“Sending lambs the considerable mileage to St Merryn means I have to justify the cost by sending at least 100 lambs a lorry.”