How a sheep farm aims to hit 1,000kg/ha with continental flock

A self-replacing terminal sire flock is now targeting 1,000kg of liveweight/ha after lifting output 27% in three years.

Lamb production has lifted from 517.85kg/ha to 662.61kg/ha since 2017 at Greenfield Farm, High Etherley, County Durham. At the same time, bought-in feed costs have been cut by £6.26 a lamb sold.

The farm has achieved this by selecting replacements using flock-performance data to balance milk, fertility and carcass quality.

Meanwhile, a major reseeding programme has allowed for flock expansion as pasture productivity has improved.

See also: Texel tup breeder works towards forage-only system

Greenfield Farm

  • 755 breeding females, of which 250 are shearlings and 245 gimmers
  • Beltex, Blue Texel, Charollais-Beltex, Charollais and Suffolk sires
  • All lambs finished deadweight to Dunbia
  • 62ha (153 acre) ring-fenced farm
  • Indoor lambing flock
  • 700mm average rainfall a year

Farm history

The flock has evolved several times since Jayne Brown restocked the family farm in 2006 and bought 140 broken-mouthed Swaledales and a few Bluefaced Leicester tups.

She experimented with breeding Swaledale, Cheviot, Lonk, Blackface, Derbyshire Gritstone and Lleyn ewes to Bluefaced Leicester rams. A 35-head suckler herd was built up, but the farm has been sheep-only since 2018.

Gimmer lamb replacements were retained from terminal sire lambs out of various Mule crosses and some Lleyns were tried. The flock is now mainly at least three-quarters continental.

In 2017, 371 ewes produced 627 lambs. Last year, 562 ewes produced 955 lambs.

Now farming with her partner Paul Richardson and with help from her daughter Jayne, Ms Brown breeds replacements and prime lambs with terminal sires. 

One teaser is used to lamb the flock in three two-cycle blocks. Due to limited shed space, the main flock lambs from mid-February, the shearlings lamb from early March and the hoggs lamb from late March.

Recent progress

Taking blood samples and checking forage quality pre-lambing has given the farm the confidence to rely more on homegrown forage and cut late-gestation concentrate feeding for mature ewes by 70% for 2021 lambing.  

Cards and bulldog clips help the lambers manage jobs and keep mortality down © MAG/Michael Priestley

Sheep feed (which includes all bought-in nutrition – minerals, lamb milk replacer, ewe concentrates, creep and Himalayan rock salt) cost £19.21 a lamb sold in 2017, but fell to £12.95 a lamb sold in 2020. This included milk replacer for 70 pet lambs.

Much of the cost has been saved by producing 10.5-11 metabolisable energy (ME) silages, as a result of cutting grass before the seed head starts to fully emerge.

Fields are shut up from late April after the first grazing. Big-bale silage is then taken in June and July after five weeks of growth.

To catch the grass at the right point, the farm has its own silaging equipment, rather than relying on contractors.

This has cut 10% off dry matter to average 30%, adding 0.5MJ of ME/kg of silage and 4-5% D-value.

They have also reseeded about 48ha of the farm’s 62ha under the guidance of Ms Brown’s father Ray since 2011, with the rest to be done this year.

Ground is reseeded with Italian ryegrass for about three years, followed by a longer ley of perennial ryegrass, timothy and clovers.

However, this has increased seed, lime and fertiliser costs, which have risen from £6.88 a lamb to £11.11 a lamb.

7 key factors in achieving good output

Good lambing shed routines

  • Every pen is mucked out, swept and limed between each ewe, which has helped cut back oral antibiotic dosing by about 75% over the past three years
  • All messages are written on a whiteboard which helps the three lambers communicate with management and makes sure all lambs get 50ml/kg of colostrum in the first two hours and 200ml/kg over the first 24 hours, and their navels are fully dry
  • Each pen has a bulldog clip on the top rail and only when the cleansing has been found and binned is the clip is placed pointing up
  • A card is then placed in the clip with the date of birth and any notes about the health of the lamb or ewe written on it
  • Coloured velcro is wrapped on pen gates to indicate different management requirements, such as “needs colostrum”, “fostered”, “triplets” or “lameness”

Monitor eight-week weights

  • Border Software helps the team measure eight-week weight to gauge which lines and breeds are milking well, as well as to monitor inbreeding
  • Milky ewes are retained and gimmers from milky ewes are considered for breeding. Two draws of lambs are often sold off ewes at 12- to 14-week weaning, with no creep
  • Detailed paper recording started in 2012 and the software package in 2016

Enforce strict culling

  • Slow lambers, and any ewe with a tight pelvis, are culled are culled, although assisted lambings are expected

  • Repeat single breeders (two or three times) are culled and any offspring retained also culled if showing the same trait
  • Prolapsing is a culling offence, as is persistent lameness

Know how lambs are bred

  • Lambs’ ear tags are cable-tied with a coloured tag that signifies the sire’s breed to help assess lamb performance and select gimmers. For example, a Suffolk twin lamb might be expected to gain 400g/day, while a Beltex would be fine gaining 300g/day

Analyse weight and egg counts

  • Daily liveweight gains are checked every three weeks and once or twice a week once lambs are weaned and nearing sale weight
  • Faecal egg counts (FECs) and weight-gain data throughout the summer are used to prompt whether a wormer is needed. Lower weight gains can indicate the need for weaning, worming or creeping if necessary. This data is combined with faecal egg count data to time the nematodirus drench

Don’t buy-in disease

  • Homebred tups have been used to minimise the bought-in disease risk. Only four sires have been bought in since 2017.
  • Rams are normally picked up from the breeder’s farm and then quarantined for four weeks with orange or purple drenches and blood-tested for iceberg diseases
  • The flock will be completely closed this year and rely on artificial insemination and homebred sires

Invest in flock health

  • All deaths are sent to Farm Portems at Hamsterley to be diagnosed
  • Ewes are vaccinated for footrot, toxoplasmosis, enzootic abortion, pasteurella and clostridials in a flock health programme with Castle Vets
  • A full forage-mineral analysis was done this year
  • Ewes are given a mineral bolus at pre-tupping and turnout and have access to Himalayan rock salt

Future

Planning permission has been granted for two sheds, which will make lambing 900 ewes inside possible by 2023. If they rear 170% at 43kg, then this will amount to 1,061kg/ha.

More effort will be made to rotationally graze and subdivide pasture to maximise grass use. The sheds will allow more flexibility and allow them to rest grass in the winter.

Running a sheep-only farm will present a challenge when it comes to parasite control, but the farm will continue to use clean grazing, rotations and will follow Sustainable Control of Parasites in Sheep (Scops) principles to manage this.

“The farm has increased the number of kilos sold a hectare and we’ve also increased the value of each kilo with carcass grades,” explains Ms Brown.

“This system suits our personalities. We practically live in the lambing shed anyway, so we may as well maximise output if we are so hands-on.”

Farmers Weekly Awards 2021

Enter or nominate today