Finishing dovetails neatly with cropping and labour
Finishing May-born lambs fits
in well with other enterprises
on one Oxon estate.
Emma Penny reports
DESPITE last seasons low prices for finished lambs compared with store values, May-born lambs at Barrington Park Estate will be sold in the prime market again this year.
That is because May lambing and taking those lambs to finished condition fits in well with the 1420ha (3500 acres) of arable cropping and labour demands on the 2025ha (5000-acre) estate near Burford, Oxon.
Livestock foreman John Hicks explains: "We started May lambing four years ago when we lost our sheep buildings to an alternative use. At the same time, I took on the calving work, which runs throughout March, and so did not want the two tasks to clash.
"No concentrates are fed to ewes apart from triplet bearers and those in poor condition expecting twins – both groups receive 0.4kg a head barley and 0.4kg maize gluten in the six weeks up to lambing."
The 530 Scotch Halfbred X Suffolk ewes are put to a Charollais tup in December, and so start lambing in the first week of May, with a scanned lambing percentage of 190, although Mr Hicks hopes to rear just over 160%.
The ewe breed was chosen to allow maximum production within extensification premium limits, but it has its difficulties, says Mr Hicks. "We have found they do not mother-up well. With bad weather at lambing last year, that led to a very poor lambing percentage."
Those factors mean this year ewes are taken into straw yards at night, and out by day. Once lambed, ewes and lambs are individually penned to ensure good mothering before turnout, thus reducing concerns.
"Ewes were split into groups expecting singles, twins and triplets after scanning to allow better management. Even though taking these groups in and out each day is more labour-intensive, better mothering will more than cover the cost."
After lambs have been numbered, ringed and mothering-up is satisfactory, ewes and lambs are turned out to grass. No creep is fed, as the aim is to get as much production from grass as possible.
Lambs are weaned in August at 14-16 weeks old, or earlier where summer drought hits the Cotswold brash soils and grass is in short supply. "Then we will wean earlier to help maintain ewe condition."
After weaning, lambs are moved on to better quality grass, usually silage aftermaths. "We want them to grow a good frame for finishing at about 40kg liveweight rather than get fat off grass," says Mr Hicks.
Lambs are stored on grass until early October, when they move on to stubble turnips drilled after winter barley and sown as a catch crop before spring crops. About 55ha (135 acres) of stubble turnips is sown each year for finishing lambs and flushing ewes before tupping.
"If lambs finish at grass, we will sell them, but generally we will do the first draw four to six weeks after they go onto stubble turnips."
After the draw, selected lambs are put back on to grass for a week to 10 days to ensure they are clean. They are then sold liveweight through Andoversford market where they generally achieve above average prices, with the Charollais influence giving a good carcass.
"We will draw lambs every two to three weeks through until February when the last lot goes, and seem to achieve a fairly steady flow through the auction."
The reliance on grass and turnips means costs are kept low – last years forage costs came to £9 a ewe. But last years poor lambing percentage meant gross margins were not as good as expected, but Mr Hicks aims to achieve £650/ha (£263/acre) this season. *
May-born lambs will be finished again this year at Barrington Park estate.
Other flock management changes on way
Besides housing ewes and lambs after lambing to ensure mothering-up, other changes are afoot in the sheep enterprise at Barrington Park Estate. While a move to organic production is currently underway, consideration is also being given to splitting the ewes into early spring and May lambing flocks. Estate manager Charles Phillips believes the transition to organic production should help to increase margins, and should be done without too much change on the farms 400ha (1000 acres) of permanent grassland.
Mr Hicks says May lambing, with its reliance on grass, should suit organic production. "We are slot seeding grass and red and white clovers into permanent pastures to help rejuvenate them and maintain production as we can no longer use fertiliser on grass. But low stocking rates – to fall within extensification claim guidelines – means grass is usually plentiful, other than when drought sets in."
One concern is that none of the arable land is under conversion, leaving a question over finishing lambs on stubble turnips. Mr Phillips is considering converting a block of arable land, but is as yet undecided.
"We might have to grow winter forage such as grass and clover silage leys or lucerne, which would give us scope to grow stubble turnips."
• No concentrate fed.
• Rely on grass and stubble turnips.
• Sold at 40kg liveweight.