Alister Davies started farming sheep in much the same way as anyone else. But then he had an epiphany, transformed nutrition, grassland management and daily liveweight gain, and this year had sold every lamb with U and R grades before the end of June.
Alister Davies’ first steps into sheep farming were much the same as those of any other producer trying to get on to the farming ladder.
He and his wife Eirian acquired a small parcel of land, rented more whenever they could and bought-in a small flock of breeding ewes.
Appropriately choosing Lleyns for their Machynlleth location in mid-Wales, they found the breed to be prolific and easy to manage.
They set-stocked in the traditional manner, lambed in mid-February and had usually sold most finished lambs by the end of summer, with a few stragglers remaining until autumn.
And then came an enlightenment which changed the whole system.
He says: “I went to Ireland in 2014 where we saw farmers grazing ewes and lambs behind electric fencing in paddock systems.
It was something I had only seen practised on dairy farms before, but it was obvious the amount of grass they were utilising was massively more than we were achieving at home.
“Every day the grass was at the right stage of growth, the three-leaf stage.
It was never tall and stalky and the regrowth was far quicker.” Determined to implement the same practices at home, Mr Davies immediately started improving his grassland in preparation for setting up paddocks, which would be grazed by the flock on a rotational basis for one to two days at a time.
“We limed the fields where it was needed, corrected the phosphate and potash and reseeded with Trojen, a fast-growing mixture of highly digestible grasses and clover from the ForFarmers Topgrass range.”
Describing the difference in grass growth as ‘massive’ and the rates of recovery as ‘so much quicker’, he was able to increase annual stocking rates from the previous five ewes per hectare (two ewes/acre), to 15 ewes/ha (six ewes/acre).
Buoyed by the improvements in grassland management, Mr Davies began to pay closer attention to his ewes’ and lambs’ nutrition throughout the year, and as an account manager with ForFarmers himself, was well placed to know the company’s advice.
Keenly focused on using the live yeast Levucell® SC in his ewe and lamb rations, he explains his thinking.
He says: “Levucell® SC is the only rumen-specific live yeast on the market, which is why ForFarmers has run with it as a company for more than 20 years.
“It was originally licensed for cattle, but as soon as it was available for sheep, we started to use it in our top-of-the-range feeds.” Highly effective in improving rumen health and function, Levucell® SC achieves this through numerous mechanisms.
This includes scavenging oxygen and therefore promoting the anaerobic conditions required by other desirable rumen microflora and mopping up lactic acid.
Stabilising rumen pH in the process, it also increases the rumen’s microbial biomass, its synthesis of protein and vitamins, and increases fibre digestion.
“All of this is exactly what we want for our ewes, so we are feeding Ewbol Gold rolls and Levucell in late pregnancy,” he says, explaining how it has almost eliminated prolapses in the flock.
“Any farmer who is honest will tell you their flock has prolapses and it is not uncommon in prolific flocks for these to reach a level of about 10 per cent.
“For ewes carrying more than one lamb, there is limited space in the rumen and, because most pregnant ewes are fed a high fibre diet, anything you can do to speed up fibre digestion relieves the pressure inside the ewe.
“In our flock we have found it has taken the risk away and, out of our 70 ewes, this year we had just one prolapse.
“At the same time we have had a higher lambing percentage, scanning at 200 per cent, due to better nutrition at tupping and genetic selection of our best stock.” Continuing with the Ewbol in early lactation, he says this is cut out within two to six weeks depending on the availability of grass.
"We have had a higher lambing percentage, scanning at 200 per cent, due to better nutrition at tupping"
Meanwhile, his lambs have traditionally been fed the high protein and energy early creep, Lambwena, followed by Ewbol Prestige Lamb.
However, because of the dry spring this year, Mr Davies took part in a national project using a new pellet designed specifically for this season’s conditions.
He says: “Because of the lack of spring grass growth, many lambs had been eating far more creep feed than normal, so ForFarmers designed a pellet in response to the situation.
“With lower protein and higher digestible fibre than the traditional creep pellet, we found it was perfect at a time of limited grass and could be sold at a lower cost.
“With the inclusion of Levucell® SC, we found the effect in our lambs was dramatic.
The yeast clearly helped maintain rumen health and function across the farms taking part, allowing high intakes to be safely fed and the product went on to the market straight away, branded as Ewbol Lamb Finisher 16 plus Levucell.
“We found 30kg lambs were eating up to 2kg/head/day, which is not something we would normally expect.
Weight gains were phenomenal and we exceeded our daily liveweight gain target of 450g from birth to slaughter by a good margin.” With stock ready for market by May or June, the whole crop was sold through Dunbia in Llanybyther before the seasonal slump in prices.
He says: “May and June lambs often sell for £20-30 more than those sold in July to September and we found ours graded better too.
“By the end of June, all lambs born up to April 10 were sold, having reached the 40kg minimum liveweight.
Even lambs from this year’s hoggs.
“With the same rams used as the previous year, the only real difference was in the nutrition.
“Killing out percentage was also higher, this year recording at 49-51 per cent compared with 46-47 per cent last year.” Every lamb graded to hit Dunbia’s premium payment, with all achieving U or R, and most (62.5 per cent) achieving R3L.
Mr Davies says: “Finishing lambs quicker has also given me spare grass so I can buy-in ewe couples or stores to finish as well.”