Sheep: A system for new entrants to challenge conventional flocks?
A desire to reduce labour and feed costs led Marc Jones to develop a low input, high output sheep system, feeding in-lamb ewes swedes during winter and finishing lambs off grazed grass. But is it sustainable? Simon Wragg reports.
Marc Jones is pushing the boundaries at the 200 hectare (500-acre) Trefnant Hall, near Welshpool on the Shropshire/Powys border, which he farms with his parents, David and Jane.
Most of the land is permanent pasture on south-facing slopes and there is little local opportunity to expand the ground.
“Reducing costs is the way forward to increase farm income,” he says. “Dad runs 1,200 mainly Texel cross ewes, aiming to have 1,000 lambs sold before July as, despite being on the Welsh border, we are in a rain shadow and summer grazing can be limited.”
Marc says he sees conventional sheep systems as labour intensive, highlighting the need for housing and reliance on concentrates to get ewes into condition and lambs ready for sale.
He wanted to see how he could improve income on his family’s unit and in 2009, as part of a Hybu Cig Cymru scholarship, he travelled to New Zealand to look at sheep systems there.
“In the UK, the New Zealand system is often referred to as low input/low output, but that’s wrong,” says Marc, who fits in his sheep enterprise around working full-time as an ADAS consultant.
“Pasture management is spot on and they know how to get lambs finished off grass and within abattoir specification. It’s the same challenge as the UK.”
Immediately after his travels, he purchased 150 Lleyn ewes from a sale at Ruthin and says the breed characteristics of easy lambing, milky mothers and good carcase conformation were ideal for a low input/high output system.
“The ewes are put to a Lleyn tup as I need the ewe lambs to build up the flock. There are 400 breeding females at the moment,” he says.
“Ewes strip feed swedes from late December. I use a contractor to direct drill 10 acres into old pasture, having sprayed off with Roundup first. Crop requirements are very simple, but there is little recent agronomic research.
“A swede crop needs a similar soil pH to grass. I buy treated seed to avoid losses to flea beetle and the main fertiliser application is 17:17:17. As an estimate, I put the swede crop costs at £3/ewe, with overall forage costs including re-seeding and fertiliser at around £15/ewe,” says Marc.
“The ewes are given a micro-nutrient mineral bolus before strip grazing the swedes to supply selenium, cobalt and especially iodine to avoid goiter, usually seen as swelling of the thyroid gland and a lack of thriftiness in the lambs.”
Marc says that, because the swede root is high in energy but low in protein, there is a need to switch ewes to good pasture three weeks prior to lambing in April.
Ewes are scanned in mid January, with ewe-lambs scanning at 100 per cent and older ewes averaging 185 per cent. Single carrying ewes are kept harder when at pasture, with a stocking rate of 25 ewes/ha (10 ewes/acre) and with twin bearing ewes at 12-17 ewes/ha (5-7 ewes/acre), depending on pasture quality.
“At first, the ewes hardly seem ed to eat, but after lambing they go at the grass hard,” says Marc. “There is very little intervention at lambing, unlike with our main flock, where dad is helped by one day and one night lamber. Ewes are constantly moved from pen to pen to pasture.
“In my Lleyn flock everything is EID and Signet recorded so I can keep an eye on how ewes perform.”
Marc is out with the flock from 6am to 8am before his going to his full-time job, returning in the evening to check around the flock between 5pm and 6pm.
“The Lleyns need so little intervention compared to the main flock, but as with all livestock it pays to be vigilant,” he says. “For example, ensuring carrion doesn’t attack lambs of the first-time ewes that tend to be less fiesty.”
The main difference for this New Zealand-inspired sheep system is the lamb finishing regime. “We finish entirely off grass,
marketing lambs later in the year from September to December, compared with the Texel crosses, which dad likes to have most marketed before summer.
“All the Lleyn male lambs are sold deadweight via Dunbia to Sainsbury’s as part of the Wales YFC Lamb Initiative, which pays a premium to young sheep producers.
“Most are hitting specification at R3L. I use the lamb EID to record performance of each lamb back to both the ewe and tup as there is a 15p/kg penalty for those outside contract. My aim is to get a £2/head margin over lambs sold from the main Texel flock.”
It makes for lively banter, explains father, David. “Marc is very keen to expand the Lleyns, but with the conventional system, yes, you may be more labour and feed intensive, but you are in control as I see it.”
David says when comparing losses at lambing, figures generally quoted suggest around 10 per cent of lambs are lost when lambing indoors, compared to lambing outdoors, which is reckoned to be nearer 20 per cent, although this is a figure Marc challenges.
“If my lambing assistant saves one lamb a night, that’s his wages covered,” says David.
“If we have a spring and summer with low rainfall and the grass dries up, then what do you do if you’re dependant on that grass to get ewes fit ahead of lambing?
“We know from the experience of the past two years that can happen. Marc has managed with 400 ewes, putting out round bale silage, but how would we cope if we had 1,000 ewes?”
There are challenges, admits Marc: “A key factor is getting the swede crop established properly. I’ve yet to find a really efficient direct drill that can handle a low seed weight/acre to go straight into pasture.
“If seed is drilled too close, root size suffers; too patchy and the root size varies considerably.
“We also have a problem with wild deer grazing the swedes, which has taken in some areas at least 10 days worth off the crop.”
As in New Zealand, it is attention to detail with the grazing and root management which is paramount, he says.
“I have had to supplement winter grazing with a small amount of round baled silage, but the economics still suggest, despite the challenges, the gross margin is ahead of the main flock.
“The system may not suit all farm situations, but the lack of need for accommodation, bought-in concentrate and low labour would lend itself to many; it could be particularly attractive for new entrants with limited capital.
“I would like to get the Lleyn flock to 1,000 ewes in the next few years, depending on how it fits with dad’s flock.
“On what has been achieved to date, the low input/high output system is a way forward, helping reduce costs and improving income where other factors, such as land availability, are an issue.”
- Land - 200 hectares (500 acres) permanent pasture with a few arable acres.
- Sheep flocks - 400 Lleyns low input/high output and 1,200 Texel cross high input/high output.
- Utilise winter roots for Lleyns with grazing and root management key.