Dark clouds over lambing

1 May 1998

Dark clouds over lambing

Bad weather has taken its

toll on the new-born lambs

at Rugley and scuppered

any hope of progress with

arable work.

Tim Relf reports

IT WOULDNT be unknown to get snow at lambing time," Alan Jackson said in this column five weeks ago.

And snow at lambing time it did – but not before a week of rain in early April. And then after the snow had finished, more rain fell.

The result was the wettest April on record and, with the fields sodden, joint-ill, watery-mouth and scouring have hit the stock. Antibiotics, costing about £1 a head, have proved largely useless, leaving the Jacksons heading into May with 150 fewer lambs than last year.

Alan was relying on big numbers to shore up the bottom line, conscious that prices are unlikely to return to the £50 a head peak seen last season.

Delays to animals progress might also cause problems later. "We like to get them sold as soon as possible. By the end of summer, there are too many mouths on the farm and we need to cut stocking rates from the seven ewes and lambs an acre acceptable in the early – supposedly grass-rich – part of the season."

The antibiotics cost has been increased by the appearance last week of mastitis in a few ewes. Vet and med bills are already something which Alan is well aware need trimming, with MLC Flockplan figures for 1997 showing Rugleys at £12 a ewe (£9000 total).

The Flockplan target is £5 a ewe – but £8 a ewe is more realistic, says Alan, with the cost pushed up because the flock is maedi-visna accredited and scrapie-monitored.

Testing for MV, at a cost of £1 a ewe, is something which is done every other year – and thankfully it wont be 1998, says Alan. The sheep are also treated routinely with an abortion vaccine (£2 a ewe). "Its something which, having always done it, Im afraid to stop."

The Flockplan data (compiled by the MLC at a cost of £200) also show feed costs to be on the high side. But one of the few consolations of this years disastrous lambing is that this could fall from £17 a ewe with fewer to rear and a lower incidence of triplets.

The ewes, meanwhile, are getting 0.4kg of a home-mixed barley, beet pulp, fish, soya and molasses mix, in a bid to keep them milking.

"Theyre getting well fed and were getting well fed up," says Alan. "Its frustrating, seeing as everyone worked so hard keeping the lambs alive in the shed – only to see then die outside."

Lambing hasnt been a cheap exercise in terms of wages, either. Two students were hired temporarily, supplementing the regular staff, themselves at full stretch. Either side of Easter there were two 32-hour standard weeks – which meant two weeks with 50-plus hours of overtime for staff.

At least calving has gone a little better, with the job now over half complete. AI was about 50% successful – "disappointing" at £21 a head, with the Aberdeen-Angus stock bull, Netherton Director, catching the returns.

So between Netherton, and Alans debut AI efforts, 55 of the 58 heifers were put in-calf. So far, one calf and one heifer have been lost, due to a difficult calving and a prolapse.

Some of the calves, along with their dams, may be offered for sale the week after next at a local auction, rather than take them through to the store or finished stage. "Trouble is," says Alan, "everyone seems to have the same idea so the market could be flooded."

Either way, the prospect of selling them, ultimately, as finished stock is not an appealing one. In this column five weeks ago, Alan explained how some animals had sold for a 20-year-low of 161p/kg dw.

And, just as his comments about the snow seemingly tempted fate in the form of a late fall, heavy and unexpected, so the remark about cattle prices had a similar effect. A few sold since then have made even less – just 150p/kg dw.

Admittedly, they were Holstein-type, poor conformation (O+4H) sorts – but they only grossed £530 apiece. Thats more than £200/head down on pre-BSE levels.

No wonder Alan is so disappointed at the dire lambing results. &#42

Muddy sheep and muddy wheels… new-born lambs have struggled to cope with the wet and cold conditions, says Alan Jackson.


&#8226 A 280ha (690-acre) arable and grass unit in the north east, farmed by Alan and Lorna Jackson on a full agricultural tenancy from the Duke of Northumberland.

&#8226 Heavy land growing combinable crops and grass, 25% in the LFA.

&#8226 Continental cross beef cattle finished on semi-intensive system.

&#8226 British Milksheep producing prime lambs, plus small pedigree Suffolk and Texel enterprises.

&#8226 Three full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.

At least calvings gone a little better.

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