Early lambing flocks have fallen from favour on many farms in recent years, but when well managed it can provide an efficient use of farm labour and resources.
At Lower Hope Farm, Ullingswick, Herefordshire, which is managed by Simon Wells on behalf of the Richards family, an early lambing flock of 950 ewes is the best way to use poorer quality land and generate cash flow at a quieter time of year.
The 800-hectare (2,000-acre) mixed arable, soft fruit and livestock farm grazes a total of 1,020 ewes and 30 Hereford suckler cows and followers across 190ha (470 acres) of permanent pasture. The 950 commercial ewes are complemented by a flock of 70 pedigree Suffolks, says Mr Wells.
“The bottom line is that much of this ground simply is not suited to any enterprise other than sheep. However, because of this, it can only support high sheep numbers for a limited part of the year before grass quality and quantity decline significantly.”
As a result, Mr Wells and shepherd Chris Rollings have developed a successful and profitable system which sees lambing of the commercial flock start in mid-January and completed by the first week of March.
Mr Wells says: “This fits well around our other enterprises as it means the buildings can be multi-purpose. They are used for grain storage over the summer months and are home to our Christmas wreath-making business for the autumn months.”
Importantly, with the soft fruit businesses producing significant cash flow through the summer months and the arable crops sold through autumn and winter, the early lambing flock provides a welcome boost to cash flow through the spring, says Mr Wells.
“We have got a good system which works on a number of levels, but breed choice has been critical to making it work here.
The ewe flock is made up of a base of North Country Mules, which are put to Suffolk tups, with Suffolk cross ewe lambs retained for breeding and again put to Suffolk tups bred in the farm’s own pedigree flock, says Mr Rollings.
“A big bonus with this system is that we can manage any disease risk carefully as the only replacements coming on to the farm are a small number of North Country Mules each year and the occasional stock tup for the pedigree Suffolks.
“Each year the incoming Mules are run as a separate group until well after lambing, ensuring they do not pose a risk to the resident flock.”
The strong Suffolk base to the flock has been a deliberate policy, with the aim of producing fast-growing lambs which are able to finish off grass with the addition of a small amount of creep feed.
Mr Rollings says: “On top of that, the Suffolk influence in the ewe flock helps keep lambing percentage at a more manageable level than if we had a flock of all Mules. We only retain twin and triplet-born ewe lambs and generally scan at 180 to 190 per cent.
“Lambing is staggered, with ewes split into batches of about 200 and a new batch starting each fortnight.
“There is some crossover between the groups, which is intentional, but it means we have a slower period at the transition between groups. This means we have time to catch up a little bit.”
Mr Rollings says grass management is never easy on much of the sloping ground the flock runs on, with grass slow to come in spring and quick to go away again in summer and autumn too.
A large proportion of the ground is in environmental schemes, which limits the amount of fertiliser we can apply, he says.
“That is why the early lambing system works so well here. It enables us to use the peak grass growth to finish lambs on and means we have most lambs away and off the farm before grass growth ebbs away,” says Mr Rollings.
“That leaves more grass for ewes post-weaning and means they are back in good condition ready for tupping again.
“If we lambed later it would save some feed costs, but the chances are we would have many more lambs left through to the autumn, taking up grass which should be being used for the ewes.”
With careful tup selection, Mr Rollings says he is breeding commercially-orientated tups suitable for both home use and sale to local commercial flocks.
“We try to breed growthy, naturally-fleshed tups which leave lambs that thrive in our system and on many other local farms,” he says.
“When it comes to sourcing new stock rams for the pedigree flock, I am always looking at what they will breed for our own commercial use. We need rams with good tops and shape to leave the type of lamb our customers want.”
It is a policy which is reaping rewards. Lower Hope lambs are regularly at the top of market prices at Ludlow and more than 1,000 lambs were sold by the last week in June.
“The aim is to have the bulk of the lamb crop sold by then, and any lambs left are generally run through over the summer while prices are lower and are finished on root crops and a little concentrate feed as prices start to rise again in autumn,” says Mr Rollings.
“Our lambs have averaged 248p/kg through to the end of June and have been in the top end of the prices most weeks, which makes it worthwhile using some creep feed to get these early lambs away straight off their mothers.
“It does add some costs, but the lamb prices make it worthwhile and having lambs away early means more grass for the ewes and helps ensure a decent size lamb crop again the year after.”
Additionally, much of the grazing ground is also required to make silage for the flock’s winter rations, so having lambs away quickly helps in this respect too, says Mr Wells.
“We graze ewes and lambs on stubble turnips and forage rape when they are turned out from the lambing shed, as much of the grassland is too wet to graze early in the year.
“Then they move on to the grass and as we start to draw lambs, we gradually shut the grass up for silage, aiming to make about 850 bales a year of high dry matter silage for winter feeding, along with bought-in concentrates.”
Mr Rollings says the use of Suffolk tups and Suffolk cross ewes is paramount in ensuring the flock’s continued performance, with high growth rates coming from both the choice of sire and the milkiness of the Suffolk cross Mule ewe.
“We do use other terminal sires, but they do not generally have the growth rate of Suffolks and their lambs are generally among those held back for later finishing on roots in autumn.”