Weakening market for light lambs prompts hill farm rethink

Adapting the ewe breeding policy is resulting in lambs with higher slaughter weights at a Welsh upland farm.

Paul and Dwynwen Williams had run a flock of North Wales-type Welsh Mountain ewes at Cae Haidd, a 125ha beef and sheep farm in the Snowdonia National Park.

Paul Williams in a shed with sheep

Paul Williams © Debbie James

See also: Welsh abattoir closes due to lack of lamb

However, with a weakening market for small lambs, they switched to a Penderyn-type Welsh Mountain breed.

They say the Penderyn not only provides additional length and frame, but it has tighter wool, making it a good match for a farm that rises to 380m.

Mr Williams says he wanted more of the lambs to reach 36kg-plus at sale.

“If you consider the lamb market this year, the market for small lambs has been absolutely dire. Anything below 30kg hasn’t been worth producing.

“We have lost historical markets for small, light lambs in Portugal, Greece and Spain, yet we are still in the European Union with more than 500 million consumers and the exchange rate should be working in our favour.

“If we can’t sell lambs at a decent price now, I cannot see how that situation is going to improve after Brexit.”

The Welsh Mountain flock is gradually being graded up to the Penderyn and it now accounts for nearly half the 240 ewes.

The decision is already paying dividends. On average, the Penderyns are finishing at well above 35kg – on average 3kg more than the Williams family were achieving from North Wales types.

“Welsh lambs generally finish at about 30kg, so producing 3kg more meat represents a 10% increase,” says Mr Williams.

“It’s all about measuring, monitoring and making small improvements that add up to significant gains.”

Sheep in a field

© Debbie James

Adopting breeds with figures

This isn’t the only change he has made in his quest to improve performance and efficiencies.

Since the mid-1980s, half the total flock of 500 ewes and 120 ewe lambs had been Welsh Halfbreds, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to source Border Leicester rams, now classified as a minority breed.

“It seems to be a less-fashionable breed to keep, but for me the big downside was that the breed has no performance-recorded flocks,” says Mr Williams.

“These days, nearly every single breed has some performance-recorded figures. If you are a progressive breeder and you want to improve a maternal-cross, you need the EBVs behind the breed.”

Mr Williams has now switched to a Fronteira ram sourced from the Logie Durno flock in Scotland.

The Fronteira is acomposite breed with a high maternal EBV, which is a result of crossing high-indexed Bluefaced Leicester and Texel breeds.

“For the past six years we had been looking for a breed that would stand up to the Welsh Halfbred,” says Mr Williams.

“I was reluctant to use a Bluefaced Leicester because this is a challenging upland farm and pure Mules would need a lot of looking after – they are not as hardy as the Halfbred.

“I would have needed to feed more or decrease the stocking rate and I didn’t want to do either.”

What particularly appealed to Mr Williams was Logie Durno’s strategy of breeding outdoors.

“Through a process of natural selection, anything that couldn’t perform in the conditions that we farm in would have gone a long time ago,” says Mr Williams.

He is now in his second year of using this breed and plans to retain the Fronteira cross-bred ewe lambs as breeding ewes and cross them with Texel and Suffolk terminal sires.

The benefits of using teasers at Cae Haidd

Breeding begins with teaser rams running with the ewes for 10 days to provoke natural synchronisation.

On 15 October, raddled rams are turned in with the cross-breds for the first 16-day breeding cycle.

At the end of that period, the colour of the raddle is changed and ewes get a second 16-day cycle. At this point, rams are introduced to the Welsh Mountain flock for the first of two 16-day breeding cycles; these ewes are also with teasers for 10 days before breeding.

This system has resulted in a lambing period of just 48 days. “We have been using a teaser for three years and lambing seems to be getting tighter every year,” says Mr Williams.

Raddling ewes eases pressure at housing. “We only house and feed for three weeks before ewes are due to lamb, and after turnout they have to stand on their own four feet,” says Mr Williams.

From the end of June lambs are sold to Randall Parker at Llanidloes or through Llanrwst mart.

“The bulk are sold in July, August and September. I don’t want to see any lambs on the farm by the first week in November,” says Mr Williams.