Glynllifon Agricultural College, Caernarfon, is set to open its gates to host NSA Welsh Sheep on May 21. Hannah Park finds out more on what visitors can expect to see.
Visitors to NSA Welsh Sheep this year can expect an impressive backdrop at Glynllifon Agricultural College, Caernarfon.
The 283-hectare (700-acre) lowland farm may not be a traditional farm setting for the event, but it is very much a commercial entity – managing 162ha (400 acres) of productive farmland alongside 121ha (300 acres) of woodland within the grounds of a 405ha (1,000-acre) historical estate.
With some 500 15 to 18-year-olds studying on a range of land-based vocational courses at the college, including agriculture, this enclosed space makes for a safe and easily manageable teaching environment.
So says farm manager Rhodri Manod Owen who, after joining the college in 2011, has been overhauling the breeding policy and grazing management system of the college’s sheep enterprise since 2014.
In a bid to improve biosecurity and future-proof the farm system for a changing agricultural climate, what was a flock based on cross-bred Mules and bought in replacements has now switched to a closed flock of mainly pure-bred Lleyns alongside some pure-bred Texel and Charollais which are used to breed ram replacements.
A new grazing system was also installed last year over a 20ha (50-acre) block of ground and is now used to graze beef cattle and sheep, with a further 28ha (70 acres) to be converted into the same next year.
The college’s 600 pure-bred Lleyn ewes are crossed mainly to high-index terminal sires, including Texel and Charollais, for finishing, with a focus on pushing lamb carcase weights.
These are lambed alongside 100 ewes put to pure-bred Lleyn to produce flock replacements and 120 ewe lambs which were put to the Charmoise for the first time this year.
When it comes to replacement selection, all pure-bred twin Lleyn ewe lambs which are born unassisted are ear notched and kept.
These will be selected from ahead of tupping the same season, looking for twin ewe lambs to tup at 40kg plus.
Teasers are put in for two weeks before tupping at the beginning of October to ensure a tight lambing period, which starts just before March 1 to run over six weeks and is all done indoors.
With students heavily involved in husbandry tasks around lambing, the indoor system is primarily to provide an accessible educational platform, but it also works well alongside other enterprises on the farm, which include a 200-head autumn block calving dairy herd, a 50-sow pig unit and a suckler herd of 35 Stablilser and Welsh-black cross cows spring calving from the beginning of April.
Regular weighing starts pre-weaning at eight to 10 weeks for finishing lambs, most are sold at about 38kg off grass to Dunbia, returning mostly R and some Es and U-graded carcases.
All finished lambs will be away by the end of August.
Any remaining on-farm are then sold as stores via Bryncir livestock market.
Explaining why the flock’s breeding policy has moved in the direction it has, Mr Owen says: “We are well aware the subsidy system as it stands is at risk, so we needed to look at our farm costs and make more from grasses and forage we have.
"Although we cannot do anything about the market, we can look to do a lot on the farmyard to improve efficiencies and reduce cost of production.
“We have put in genetics which can handle change, aiming for a smaller, prolific ewe weighing about 60kg which can work off grass and forage alone and produce lambs with no hard feeding if required in future.”
As part of the system overhaul, the farm began working with consultancy firm Precision Grazing last year to install the technograzing system.
What formerly made up seven fields is now split, according to the system design, into three ‘lanes’ and 60 0.13ha (0.3-acre) and 35 0.08ha (two-acre) ‘cells’ and is used for grazing sheep and beef cattle.
Grass is measured weekly to keep track of dry matter (DM) availability and, in full operation, animals will be on daily shifts, allocated cells in line with their daily DM requirements.
Straight after lambing, ewes and lambs are allocated lanes and setstocked to avoid problems with mismothering and also trains lambs on the system.
These will be closed down into the smaller cells once most of the lambs reach three weeks old and grass growth is active. Once fully operational, animals are generally turned into cells at covers of 2,000kg DM/ha, leaving at 1,300kg DM/ha on exit.
Grazing Lanes are alternated annually between cattle and sheep grazing, which Mr Owen says is to reduce issues around worm burdens. Regular faecal egg count sampling is also done to monitor worm counts through the year.
Mr Owen says: “The idea behind the technograzing system is to keep more livestock in a set area by producing more grass from a grazing platform.
Since installing, we are keeping about 40 per cent more stock as we were on the same area of ground when it was set-stocked and run as seven fields, and we are doing it with minimal fertiliser inputs, as faeces build-up in the concentrated grazing areas [the cells] builds the fertility of the soil naturally. We have also seen a vast improvement in pasture quality after just one season.”