14 May 1999


Breeder of the prolific

Hartline sheep, Stephen Hart

plays host for South Sheep

99. Heres how his farming

system is responding to the

tough challenges of farming

in the late 90s. John Burns

reports from Ipsden, Oxon

OXON-based producer Stephen Hart is hosting South Sheep this year.

Mr Hart, of Cross Farm, Wallingford, is well-known for developing the prolific Hartline breed whose attributes include sound mouths and feet. He has also highlighted the need to reduce the overhead costs of lamb production.

He and his partners farm 400ha (1000 acres) of combinable crops including set-aside and 100ha (250 acres) of grassland. Most is sheep-sick permanent pasture, being steep banks, parkland, or fields too stony or rabbit infested for arable cropping.

Just enough temporary leys are grown to feed 1000 ewes – the number he considers necessary to warrant a full-time shepherd, Stephen Atkinson, who receives help from Mr Hart and four vet students at lambing.

About 60ha (150 acres) of stubble turnips are also grown. They are spun into standing winter wheat and barley crops for finishing lambs and early winter feed for ewes.

Main winter feed is high quality grass silage made in May and June in big rectangular bales and stored in stacks containing a weeks feed. Provided stacks are made carefully, sheeted well, with two plastic sheets topped by a heavy duty one, sited away from buildings and vermin proof, they are very effective and much cheaper than individually wrapped bales. They are also much less trouble at feeding time.

Ewes move into unroofed, well-strawed yards 6-8 weeks before lambing. Concentrates are fed from five weeks before lambing, with all ewes fed as if carrying twins. Scanning is not considered worthwhile. Cake feeding starts with 0.1kg (0.25lb) a ewe a day building up to a maximum of 0.6kg (1.25lb) to 0.7kg (1.5lb), according to silage quality.

Lambing starts about Mar 20. Ewes lamb in the open yard and some are then moved indoors for two days in the case of twins or up to a week for triplets.

After lambing 0.1kg (0.25lbs) of high-magnesium cake is fed to all ewes as a precaution against hypomagnesaemia.

With mainly sheep-sick ground, worms are always a threat. Mr Hart was the first to import the New Zealand DIY worm egg counting kit which Mr Atkinson uses regularly to monitor worm levels. Ewes are wormed just before lambing with Ivermectin, and the lambs are treated with levamisole at the same time as their clostridia/pasteur-ella vaccine at five or six weeks. After that they are normally wormed with levamisole every three weeks until weaning in July. Mr Hart believes prolific flocks need to wean relatively early but finds it needs courage to do so.

All lambs are sold deadweight through an agent. Mr Hart and Mr Atkinson try to visit the abattoir at least once a year to see a batch of their lambs go through.

For more than 30 years with flocks of 1000-1800 ewes, Mr Hart has been selecting ewes and rams for high productivity while trying to reduce the routine labour demand. In normal lowland conditions, every ewe rearing only one lamb loses money, he says. So they have to be kept to a minimum.

During his 30 years in sheep production, Mr Harts lowest lambing percentage (lambs weaned per ewe put to ram) was 182 and for some years it was over 200. The low point followed introduction of Texel blood to improve the Hartlines conformation. The 30-year average is more than 190%.

An early lesson was that high lambing percentages require 7% to 15% of ewes to rear triplets. Since Mr Hart believes it doesnt pays to rear lambs artificially, as many triplets as possible are fostered to other ewes and any ewes with enough milk and good mothering ability are turned out with three lambs.

Mortality low

Each year 70-150 ewes will rear triplets and lamb mortality is very low – a tribute to the skill and effort put in by Mr Atkinson.

Mr Hart soon identified footrot as having an adverse effect on performance and as a big consumer of time. Its eradication, along with scald, was a priority when Mr Atkinson joined the team more than 20 years ago. The flock had been clear once before but footrot was accidentally bought-in. Since then, Mr Atkinson and Mr Hart have ruthlessly rejected rams showing signs of foot problems such as separation or cracking of the hoof wall.

"We have found it is highly heritable and since we started rejecting those we have improved the feet a lot. It must be 20 years since we last had to footbath a flock of ewes," says Mr Hart.

He hopes to have a pen of ewes which have never had their feet trimmed on show at the event. "Most people find that hard to believe," he says. "But we have proved on our Hartline rams that routine footparing makes the hoof grow faster. We pared two feet on each ram in the spring and left the other two untouched. By the autumn there was no visible difference between the four feet. We do still get occasional lame sheep but not from scald or foot-rot."

Part of the success in keeping clear of footrot is the near complete absence of other sheep in the area. And sheep can be moved around the farm without having to use common lanes which might be contaminated with footrot bacteria from other flocks.

Sound mouths are also considered a high priority and any sheep not perfect in this respect are rejected.

Texel ram bought in

Every other year Mr Hart buys in a Texel ram to improve his own Texel flock of 40 ewes from which he breeds his own terminal sires. That ram spends a long period in quarantine, and the footbath, to make sure he does not reintroduce scald, footrot or any other disease to the farm.

Sheep have become less integrated with the arable area and confined mainly to areas unsuitable for cropping. So it takes longer to check stock each day. Fields are scattered and some contain blind areas, with hedges, trees and bushes, which are time consuming to check.

Mr Hart recognises what a cost burden such features can be. Yet they are just the features which the public consider important. So, for some years, he has been developing a scheme in which some area payments are paid according to the length of field edges, type of boundaries and tree numbers.

The system could apply to most livestock areas and would mean farms with small hedged fields would get higher payments per hectare than those with big fields and few hedges. &#42

South Sheep Programme

&#8226 Farm tours throughout the day with Cross Farms shepherd Stephen Atkins. Stops to include:

&#8226 Silage making system.

&#8226 Economics of running a closed flock by Signet.

&#8226 Eniromental issues by FWAG.

&#8226 New Zealand system of faecal worm counts.

&#8226 Live demonstrations include:

&#8226 Hi-Flo jetter.

&#8226 Prattly mobile race.

&#8226 Shearwell identification bolus.

&#8226 Harrington turn-over crate.

&#8226 Yamaha ATV.

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