Driving up profits by making better use of grazed grass and home grown forage to improving livestock productivity is the aim for Northumberland farmer, Steven Lawson.
THE farm is all grass and this is where Steven Lawson, who farms with his father, Alan, at Hallington in Northumberland, sees most gains can be made. So much so that last year he signed up to be an AHDB Beef & Lamb strategic farm.
He says: “Going forward support payments are likely to be cut. We have to make the best of what we have and it is always good to get advice from people who have done things before.
“We only started last summer so it is early days but we have already seen the benefits of some of the changes we have put in place and have more planned for this year.”
At the heart of the business is the family’s pedigree Hallington herd of Aberdeen-Angus and an 850 head flock of commercial ewes.
Up until its dispersal in 2019 the Lawson’s also had a pedigree Charolais herd but have now chosen to focus purely on Aberdeen-Angus. Mr Lawson says: “It is really about ease of management and lifetime performance. We can calve the Angus heifers at two years old which makes them more productive over their lifetime.”
Bulls are sold at Stirling and Carlisle as well as direct from the farm along with surplus females.
The 850 head sheep flock comprises of Mules, bought in privately as gimmers, which are put to Texel rams and the resulting offspring kept as replacements and put to Texel cross Suffolk and Texel rams.
A small pedigree Texel flock has recently been established, mainly to breed rams for home use with the surplus sold.
Mr Lawson says: “I would like to increase ewe numbers to about 950 as we have recently taken on some more grass, but overall it is not about increasing stock numbers too much as we are already fairly well stocked.
“For me the main aim is to improve profitability by reducing costs which is where better grassland management comes in. It is a wet farm in winter with heavy land and because of the high health status of the cattle we do not run them with the sheep. There is also no water in some of the silage fields and we do not graze these so planning ahead is important and I think if we want to make better use of grass we will need to plan even further ahead.
“Last autumn we tried cell grazing for the first time, putting 300 ewes onto 20 acres towards the end of tupping time, through December and into January and then rested it.
“We had a lot of rain but it was not damaged and the sheep did really well. But I am most impressed with how well the grass has come back now. It is really lush and the quality is very good.
“This saved 40 bales of silage over winter and looking forward we are planning to do more of this, tightening the sheep up and banking more grass for winter, which will also help us keep fresh grass for lambs. I think we should be able to utilise the grass up to 20 per cent more by managing it better.
“We body condition score (BCS) the ewes and split them onto appropriate grazing depending whether they are lean or fat to ensure they are all in the correct condition for tupping and through to lambing.”
Teaser rams are used to keep the lambing period tight and lambing starts outside in April. All lambs are EID tagged at birth and birth weight, lamb vigour and mothering ability recorded. Sires are also linked to ewes.
All twin and triplet lambs which meet the replacement female criteria are ear notched at birth. They are drafted into a separate group and the EID data is reviewed with the top performing ewe lambs then retained.
Mr Lawson says: “We started EID recording last year and it has already saved us money by enabling us to monitor growth rates, meaning we have saved on vaccinations and worming and running them through the crate does not take up a lot of time.
“It is interesting that lambs which are lighter at eight weeks are lighter all the way through. Some lambs which are not doing so well do not have the genetic ability to do better so it is important to know how they are bred. This is where sire linking comes in, particularly as we are now looking to breed our own tups.”
Lambs are sold from July onwards, deadweight to Randall Parker, usually in batches of about 170. Last year the first lambs went a 11 weeks of age and were all sold before the end of November.
They are usually finished on silage aftermaths but this year Mr Lawson is looking to sow some forage rape with grass to help with finishing. He says: “If we can get the lambs away early it gives us more time to get the ewes back into correct condition for tupping.”
Addressing a lameness issue in the sheep flock has also helped to improve productivity.
Mr Lawson says: “After buying in some sheep about three years ago lameness in the flock escalated to about 18 per cent as a result of footrot. Ewes passed it onto lambs and it really impacted on finishing times.
“We tackled it using the five-point lameness plan – quarantining lame sheep, treating them with antibiotics, foot bathing and culling any sheep which were lame more than twice within 12 months.
“As a result we have now got lameness down to 2 per cent. We are working towards having a closed flock to avoid this happening again. Any sheep we do buy in are quarantined and foot bathed.
“We also now vaccinate for footrot which is cheaper to do than buying the amount of antibiotics we previously needed. We also still footbath the sheep when they have been in the shed, firstly using a pre-wash bath of just water followed by the disinfectant bath to make sure it lasts longer and is less contaminated by dirt.”
On-farm faecal egg counts (FECs) are another tool being used to reduce costs, save time and improve profitability.
Mr Lawson explains: “After some help and training from my vets, I have started doing my own FECs which means we can have a much more targeted approach to worming.
“I get the results straight away without having to take samples to the vets, although I do discuss the results with them to decide the best course of action. It reduces the amount of wormer we are buying and saves time and reduces stress for both the sheep and ourselves by worming less often.
“I usually collect samples from the lambs about once a month or more often during the nematodirus peak.
“Pre-lambing ewes are grouped into singles, twins and lean twins and triplets and I take samples in the run up to lambing and worm accordingly. This year five days before lambing started one group jumped from 50-100eggs/gram to 500eggs/gram.
“As a result of doing this it means that some ewes have not been wormed for several years with no ill effect. We constantly monitor BCS and I have also drench tested ewes to make sure we have no worm resistance.”
Some of the land is down to permanent grass while other fields are reseeded as and when necessary. Historically, this has been done by ploughed and reseeding but more recently directed drilling has been tried, although Mr Lawson says the success of this can depend on the weather.Soil is analysed to determine fertiliser use which is balanced with farmyard manure.
Last year the second cut of silage was taken just four weeks after the first which proved to be a successful move.
Mr Lawson says: “The second cut was 10.9ME and 16 per cent protein, so the plan this year is to cut the younger grass, the two-year leys, every four to five weeks.
“This should mean so that although the quantity of each cut will be less we should get better quality silage which will be baled for the sheep and the cattle youngstock. This should enable us to get better intakes and reduce concentrates. The clamped silage will be fed to the cows. We have also started to measure grass so we know what we are growing.
“This is all part of planning ahead in terms of managing the grass and deciding what we can to do utilise it better and maximise production, which should in turn lead to reduced costs and improved profitability.”