6 ways to future-proof your sheep business

Farmers looking to improve flock profitability should assess six key areas to reduce bought-in inputs and labour requirements to enable them to farm without subsidy.

This is according to independent sheep specialist John Vipond, who has spent more than 40 years turning innovative research into practical advice to develop sustainable sheep systems.

Below we take a look at what measures you can take to make your farm business as resilient as possible.

1. Grassland

Grow and use more grass at home and cut rent and transport costs. Aim to increase dry matter yield a hectare across the whole farm.

Know your soil health

  • Soil test pasture every five years and silage ground every three years.
  • Assess soil fertility and address compaction.
  • Get pH levels up to 6-6.5 by liming land.

See also: How to become 100% protein efficient by establishing multi-species leys

Move to a rotational grazing system

  • Set-stock less and use rotational grazing and a three-leaf rotation policy. The fourth leaf starts to senesce (die), which is wasteful, and it is nutritionally poor.
  • Switch to rotational grazing in winter. You will be able to budget adult ewes on summer-­grown forage and lambs will be off the farm, allowing you to get your eye in.
  • You may have to set-stock at lambing, but once lambs are big enough to mob up (six weeks of age), start rotating.
  • Aim to enter paddocks at 7-8cm and leave at 3-4cm, and move every one to four days.
  • Splitting up 10ha+ fields will be helpful.
  •  By midsummer, go in at 10-12cm and move twins at 5-6cm residual.

Vary the forage types

  • Fix nitrogen with clover. This requires lime and phosphate to help clover grow, but red clover can finish 60 lambs/ha and provide a pre-lambing silage feed.
  • Use forage brassicas (turnips, forage rape, kale, swedes) as break crops to improve soil health for a more expensive and delicate following ryegrass ley.
  • Redrilling can disturb soil structure and damage soil biology, so target it at the most productive 10-15% of the farm.
  • Use the AHDB/HCC/QMS-approved grassland varieties to suit your farm. Modern varieties respond better to nitrogen.

2. Genetics

Carry no passengers. Run more ewes to each ram and shorten your tupping periods.

Review your culling policy

  • Screen your flock for iceberg diseases (ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma, Johne’s, maedi visna, border disease, caseous lymphadenitis) and work with your vet on a flock heath plan to eradicate key culling issues such as lameness and prolapses.
  • Give ewes six weeks on good grass to gain condition after weaning. Everything still thin at this point needs culling. If they’ve not gained condition in these circumstances, there’s something wrong.
  • Make the most of historically strong cull ewe prices.

Buy hardworking tups

  • Buy from the breeders that are lambing outside and rearing tups on forage in performance-recorded flocks.
  • Tups should sire 100-150 ewes each year for at least four years in 28-day tupping periods, meaning a lifetime cost of £1 a lamb produced or less.
  • High growth rate, the ability to tup a lot of ewes and lambing ease are key attributes.

3. Flock management

Make your sheep work for you in a system that only uses medicines and health products when necessary and does not buy problems in.

Follow best practice on flock health

  • Use faecal egg counts or laboratory services to assess wormer efficacy and gauge whether you need to dose.
  • Quarantine bought-in replacements and tups for 28 days using modern orange and purple wormers as a quarantine wormer dose.
  • Use cattle, silage aftermaths or new leys to create clean grazing for lambs.
  • Follow Sustainable Control of Parasites in Sheep (Scops) recommendations.
  • Don’t use expensive minerals on a whim. Use blood tests with your vet to determine any deficiencies.

Shorten your tupping period

  • Target 86% lambed in 17 days.
  • Teasers can be used for shorter lambings to reduce stress and labour issues, leaving a more uniform lamb crop and ewe flock.
  • Remove tups this autumn after 28 days. You may have some empties to cull, but you won’t have nearly as many next year.

4. Grow better silage

Produce one good silage bale for every four to five ewes for late-gestation feed. Aim for a 10.5/11ME silage at 11+% CP and 25% DM for pit silage and 30-35% DM for bales.

  • Aim for quality, not bulk.
  • Cut earlier and ensile the same day. Ryegrass loses 0.5 D-value every day after 50% ear emergence, so a week can cost you 3.5 D-value. Aim for 68-72 D-value.

5. Cut concentrate use

Reduce your winter feed costs. By increasing forage quality and grassland use you can feed less concentrate but afford a higher ­quality feed.

  • Replace concentrates with high digestible undegradable protein (DUP) feed based on soya if you have a good-quality 11ME silage.
  • Even with a 10-10.5ME silage, you can fill the gap with beet pulp and feed 50g a lamb carried (rumen-protected soya) or 100g a lamb carried (soya) for the last three weeks of gestation for multiple-bearing ewes. This works out at 3kg of a high-DUP feed a ewe/winter, compared with conventional concentrate feeding up to 30kg of concentrate for six weeks.

6. Consider your system

Have a system that suits your strengths, the farm, climate and staff. Proactively manage your fixed costs of energy, staff, machinery and depreciation.

  • Indoor lambing – are you selling enough lambs to justify the extra cost? A good target is 185% sold. Aim for 140-150% if low-cost outdoor lambing.
  • Can contractors harvest silage better than you and save on depreciating machinery?
  • Run more sheep per labour unit. Some flocks run at 1,000-2,000 ewes per labour unit.
  • Breed easy-care ewes that require less labour.
  • Improve forage and grass quality to increase stocking rates, save time on feeding sheep and run more sheep overall. 

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