Sharing knowledge and better efficiency key to sheep production post-subsidy

Angela Calvert reports from an on-farm event encouraging sheep farmers to share knowledge and embrace new ideas.

A project to help farmers improve efficiency and competitiveness in sheep flocks was launched by Eblex, in conjunction with Farexchange, with an event at Frimlington Farms, Sutton-on-Forest, York.

Ewes and lambs grazing where two different leys have been used.
Credit: © FARMERS GUARDIAN please contact 01772 799445.
Ewes and lambs grazing where two different leys have been used.

Steve Powdrill, from Eblex, said: “Efficiency, effectiveness and consistency are key if sheep farmers are to be profitable without subsidies. They have to consider different ways of doing things and sharing of knowledge is vital to that.

“Stuart Stark of Frimlington Farms is very keen to share his experiences of the new system he is developing and we plan hold more events with a similar focus as part of this new initiative”

The last ten years have seen huge changes in policy at Frimlington Farms, resulting in the setting up of a 4,000 ewe flock, managed on an easycare system, which operates alongside a 1,100 sow intensive pig unit and an arable enterprise.

The farm is made up of 579 hectares (1,400 acres) of combinable crops, 235ha (850 acres) of grassland for grazing and silage, 206ha (511 acres) of potatoes, 37ha (91 acres) of fodder beet, 37ha (74 acres) of stewardship and the remainder is made up of carrots, maize and fodder rape.

Stuart Stark said: “The ending of IACS payments gave us the opportunity to expand our grassland and we have steadily been increasing ewe numbers and were also finishing bought in store lambs on sugar beet tops.

“The closure of the York sugar beet factory made it unviable to continue to grow sugar beet and our grade three ‘blow away’ sand land is not good for cereals.

“When we changed the pigs from an outdoor to an indoor system, finishing off slats, we had an increased amount of slurry to spread. Being in an NVZ, we now need more land to be able to spread this on.

“A real turning point was joining the SAC sheep group, in 2004, which really opened our eyes to different systems of sheep production. We decided to switch to easycare breeds and lamb outside – mainly because of labour. We now run 4,000 ewes with two shepherds, lambing from early April onwards.”

Last year, Primera rams were used on 1,500 ewes and 150 ewe lambs for meat production. The remaining ewes – Mule/Lleyn/

Romney cross – were put to a Highland ram to produce maternal lines. The rams are composite breeds, developed in New Zealand by Rissington Breedline.

The Primera is a terminal sire line, produced from UK down breeds such as the Suffolk and Dorset, and produces early maturing lambs which will finish off grass, with the emphasis on meat quality. The Highlander, developed from the Romney, Finnish Landrace and New Zealand Texel, produces fertile, milky, easy-lambing progeny.

Grassland

Mr Stark has been using a number of different mixes when reseeding grassland and has been taking part in a grass monitoring project.

Farmers should consider different ways of managing sheep.
Credit: © FARMERS GUARDIAN please contact 01772 799445.
Farmers should consider different ways of managing sheep.

He has been recording data from three fields using exclusion cages. Each cage is 50cm by 50cm and three are used in each field. Every two weeks, the material is cut and weighed and a proportion sent for analysis.

This gives information on dry matter and protein and when the figures are converted to financial values, indicate which field is the highest performer.

Mr Stark also uses a plate meter to record grass yield and when fields are being grazed, to see if they are within sward height targets (4-8cm). “I operate a set stocking regime of nine ewes with singles or five ewes with twins to the acre. Using a plate meter tells me if there is too much or too little grass and whether the sheep need a move,” he said. “The data we are collecting this year tells me which fields and/or mix are performing best and will help me with my cropping plans for next year.”

All lambs are finished to about 19kg deadweight and go to Dawn Meats, Carnaby – the majority for a Marks and Spencer contract.

In the past, they have been finished off grass, but with the addition of some concentrate feed from July onwards.

This year, for the first time, he is hoping to finish them on forage crops alone. Fodder rape – a mix of rape and kale, has been grown. This is extremely fast growing and, once grazed, should grow back for multiple grazing. He has also grown a mix of red clover and ryegrass, which will be used for silage then grazed by lambs.

Ewes are wintered on fodder beet from November through to March, in four batches of 1,000. “This works very well on our light land. We leave the headland for run-off and they have access to grass in neighbouring fields if necessary,” he said.

“We don’t feed it ad-lib; we have them behind an electric wire and have found the secret is to have a long run of wire so they can all come up to eat at once. Fodder beet is very high in energy, but we may give them some red clover silage to add protein.

“We are getting about 40 tonnes to the acre of fodder beet. Any surplus is lifted and either sold or chopped and fed to the ewes when they go onto grass before lambing. But this is a very low cost, labour saving way of wintering them.”

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