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Farm focus: Balancing sheep system with grass-seed production

Lambing Mules in February, using Poll Dorsets to encourage oestrus and balancing sheep with grass seed production makes for an interesting system.

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Getting a proportion of lambs away as soon as possible to make the most of an early premium market while freeing up land for grass-seed production is the name of the game at Norrington Manor Farms.


With 32 hectares (80 acres) cut for grass seed every year, balancing sheep grazing requirements with grass seed production poses its challenges. However, careful integration ensures both are mutually beneficial.


Under-sowing grass seed leys with spring barley fits with the farm’s entry level stewardship (ELS) scheme and produces malting barley in its first year, along with straw and grass bales for sheep bedding.


The aftermarths are then used for ewe flushing, with grass seed harvested in the second year and ground then used for lamb finishing, says Norrington Manor Farms chairman Alex Sykes, who works at Alvediston, Wiltshire.


He says: “Without the sheep, our herbage seed would not be as profitable. They put dung on the ground, help eat it back and manage the black-grass.”


With grass seed harvested in July, the farm is under pressure to make the most of these leys before they are shut up at the end of April.


To fit with this, the 960 predominantly North Country Mule ewes are lambed in two batches, with the aim for the early-born lambs to be finished quickly off the grass seed leys. About 550 ewes lamb at the start of February with the rest at the start of March.


Head shepherd Tim Collins explains how terminal sire selection is based around finishing targets. “We put all of the first flock to ‘downy’, stockier breeds such as the Poll Dorset or Dorset Down so we get a quick finish.”


The farm is increasingly using cross-breds to introduce hybrid vigour and uses rams including Suffolk cross Texel, Texel cross Charolais and Suffolk cross Southdown, along with pure Suffolks on the second flock.

Lamb finishing

All lambs are sold deadweight to Randall Parker Foods for sale through Sainsbury’s, with most weighing 18.5-19kg and grading R3L and R4L. Lambs born to the first flock are kept entire with lambs from the second flock castrated.


The quick finishing characteristics of the Poll Dorset and Dorset Down mean some lambs from the early batch are finished at 12 weeks, with 20 to 30 lambs selected at the first draw in May. From then on, more than 100 lambs go every fortnight, says Mr Sykes.


He says: “This year we started selling at the start of May and by the end of June we had 870 lambs gone and 1,000 by the end of July.”


By getting these lambs away early, the business is making the most of strong early season prices with those sold by July 8 this year averaging £81 a head. Over the years, overall average lamb finishing weights have increased thanks to improvements in ram breeding and the farm choosing to select lambs at a higher live weight.


Early season lambs are grazed on about 73ha (180 acres) of grass which includes 32ha (80 acres) of grass to be cut for seed and another 32ha (80 acres) of last season’s grass seed leys, which will be put into wheat in September. The aim is to avoid using

concentrate and just get them finished off ewe’s milk and grass.


The good mothering characteristics of the Mule fits well with the farm’s aims. Although Mr Sykes recognises it is unusual to lamb Mules in February, he prefers the breed over others because of its hardiness and prolificacy.


He says: “Ideally, we want two lambs. We do not want a breed like a Lleyn which produces more as you get more orphan lambs which is costly.”


Lambs on barley


To get the first flock cycling, Mr Collins runs some Poll Dorset ewes with them. “The Poll Dorset can breed all year round, so I like to think it chivvies the Mules into cycling and it also gets the rams working early.


“We used to get big rushes of Mules lambing, but since introducing Poll Dorsets it has evened out lambing.”


All ewes are flushed in September on grass seed and barley aftermarths. Ewes are run in groups of 200 to 300 with teaser rams put out 15 days before the main ram to get everything cycling. Rams then go in on September 1 for the first lambing batch and on October 1 for the second batch. Both flocks are scanned and separated according to number of lambs carried.


Twins and singles then go onto 32ha (80 acres) of stubble turnips which are planted after winter barley or wheat as part of ELS, says Mr Sykes.


“We block graze turnips and leave the headland to stubble as a run back. If it is wet we can then feed straw on the headland and we may have a grass run off if we need one.”


Triplet carrying ewes may also start on turnips and then get drafted onto grass. Ewes carrying twins are provided with concentrate five to six weeks before they are due to lamb, with triplet carrying ewes given concentrate earlier. Triplet carrying ewes are housed six weeks

prior to lambing, twins three to four weeks before lambing and singles two weeks.


Mr Sykes says: “All ewes used to come in six weeks before lambing but now, with turnips, we stretch it to save on the concentrate bill.”


Ewes are body condition scored regularly through the year, but Mr Collins says scoring a month before lambing is critical.


He says: “We bring them in a month before and crutch and vaccinate for pasteurella and clostridial diseases. The aim is for ewes to be condition score three by that stage. Anything which is thin will be put in with the triplets so they are fed twice a day.”


Ewes are housed in groups of 100 with concentrate feeding varied according to how many lambs carried. Bales of barley straw under sown with the grass seed leys are used for bedding and also provide roughage for ewes, says Mr Collins.


He says: “We do not feed any hay, but we put a round bale down every day as bedding. We used to get a lot of prolapses when we fed hay, but with the straw bedding the ewes just pick at it through the day and we don’t get as many prolapses now.”


There are 15 individual coups within each pen of 100 ewes where ewes and newborn lambs are moved. In these pens, ewes are provided with hay and water and 0.7kg concentrate a day.


The aim is to leave ewes to lamb on their own, with Mr Collins culling for poor mothering.


He says: “A belly full of colostrum is key to getting lambs off to a good start. I find if you keep older ewes, the colostrum is not there so after five to six crops of lambs, they go. Any ewes with mastitis or no milk will also be given a cull tag.”


All of the individual pens are also clearly labelled with coloured tags so lambing staff can clearly see what is going on in each pen. For example, a white label shows there is a problem with milk feeding or a blue label identifies a pen of triplets so they can be wet fostered onto any single bearing ewes.


Ewes and lambs move from the individual pens to outside pens in groups of 10 ewes where they remain for about two days. The first batch of 100 ewes and lambs is numbered and sprayed one colour and the next batch another colour and so on.


They are then moved out to grass in these groups of 100 with the first lambing flock grazed on the grass seed leys and time on each field varied according to paddock size.


There is a week’s gap between end of lambing of the first batch and the start of the second batch. During this time, the second flock is moved from the turnips into the outside barns while the main lambing shed is cleaned.


This second batch is fed and managed in the same way as the first. However, after lambing they go out to older pastures and down land.


Mr Collins says: “Regardless of the year, we always feed ewes about 0.3kg of concentrate for three weeks after lambing to get them past the stress period. If it is a bad year we will feed more for longer.”


Farm facts

  • Norrington Manor Farms is a family company made up of Alex Sykes, his brother Jonathan, sisters Carla and Melanie and mother Sheila
  • 485-hectare (1,200-acre) farm including 283ha (700 acres) of arable and rough grazing, permanent pasture, HLS and woodland
  • 137 to 260-metre (450-850ft) farm on chalk flint
  • 160 to 165 per cent lambs sold per year
  • Buys 150-200 North Country Mule replacements a year
  • Some lambs stored with aim for all to be gone by January
  • Four main staff at lambing time
  • Grass seed producing leys yield about 1.2 tonnes of grass seed/ha (0.5t/acre)
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