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FORWARD planning and a well executed, tried and tested ‘system’ are the key to easing management and maximising lamb sales on a 3,000 ewe Shropshire Farm.
Nick Davies is head shepherd at Brakes Farm, near Ludlow, and his enterprise is aiming for least 1.7 lambs sold per ewe – a goal significantly ahead of the average being achieved by the top third units in Eblex Business Pointers.
He sells his prime lambs through a retailer producer group – a marketing decision which has not seen him fall below £40 per head, even in this difficult season.
Key to the farm’s performance is ewe management pre- and post-lambing and the production of good-sized, vigorous lambs, which are matched to ewes’ individual milking potential by meticulous attention to fostering, where necessary.
And skimping on input costs is not necessarily the way to achieve either vigorous lambs or a milky ewe, says Mr Davies.
The top third performing flocks in Business Pointers have total variable and replacement costs a shade over £30 – not markedly different to the overall average or bottom third, and concentrates, feed and forage come out at £12.30.
At Brakes Farm, total variables come to £35.25, within which feed and forage account for £13.30. But it is fixed costs that really set the top and bottom thirds apart. With close attention to detail at lambing time, Mr Davies needs to take on around five to six casual staff. But with no unpaid family labour costs, Mr Davies’s total labour cost per ewe comes out at £15 – well below the £23 total labour costs of top third performing enterprises.
The flock is split into early and late lambers. This year, the first bunch comprised 900 ewes, which worked well. “It puts a lot of pressure on the staff, but the grass is there and the main lambing has been so much better, so we’ll go for 900 again next year,” he said.
The early bunch lambed in the first two weeks of March, while the rest of the flock began on April 1 – most of them expected to lamb within three weeks.
Around 75 per cent of the flock were put to Suffolk rams and 25 per cent to high index Texels. However, the percentage of ewes put to a Texel may increase over the next few years as Mr Davies feels these lambs are better suited to the farm.
The lambing ewes are kept in smaller bunches – bays within the lambing shed with a maximum of 80 ewes in each. Lamb size has benefited, but a new feed, with 10 per cent more protein availability than before, has also had an effect.
All the ewes are scanned and those in the second bunch carrying triplets are winter shorn and housed in January and fed 1.2kg of nuts a day.
An additional 160-170 ewes with a condition score below 3.5 are also winter shorn and, regardless of how many lambs they are carrying, are fed and housed from the beginning of January. For six weeks before lambing, ewes carrying twins get 1.0kg of nuts daily, outside.
All the housed ewes are given hay for the first 10 days and then a mix of hay and barley straw after that.
Brakes Farm ranges from 500ft to 1,000ft and, after scanning, singles carriers are put on the higher ground and are supplemented with up to 0.3kg of nuts a day for four weeks before lambing and are eventually moved downhill to lamb outside in a specially-designed yard.
The improvement in lambing, however, is also due to the better quality of ewes. All barren ewes are culled, but shearlings are given ‘a second chance’.
Ewes are also culled for bad feet, low udders, big teats, only milking on one side, mastitis and if they prolapse or fail to show a maternal instinct.
No home-bred lambs are kept as replacements – all are reared for meat except 600 Suffolk cross ewe lambs sold for breeding. Replacements are brought from the same two farms every year to avoid compromising disease status.
The net result of keeping a tight control over management at Brakes Farm is a gross margin per ewe of £29.75, which is just above the average.
However, that margin looks set to improve further if Mr Davies achieves his target of 1.7 lambs per ewe.