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Handling system and technology assets paying off

Sheep margins can be tight but careful investment in technology and handling kit has helped contractor Anthony Spencer double the number of store lambs run over winter on the Cotswolds and simplified the management of North Country Mule ewe lambs offered for sale as replacements. Simon Wragg reports.

Anything which improves the handling of sheep has to be a good thing, says Warwickshire-based contractor and sheep farmer Antony Spencer.

Working from the 30-hectare (75-acre) family owned Vicarage Farm, Lower Quinton, Stratford, he runs a half flying flock of 500 breeding ewes which are largely North Country Mules.

He says: “I aim to have as many of the sheep selected for sale capitalised by September in time to invest the surplus at Kirkby Stephen and Cockermouth breeding sales.”

Mr Spencer is a regular at the North of England Mules Sheep Association (NEMSA) sales, where he buys ewe lambs. These are put to one of three terminal sire breeds to inject hybrid vigour in the crop of lambs to be born outdoors the following April.

Once weaned, the original ewe-lambs, now aged as theaves and having proved themselves, are batched up and prepared to be offered for sale as replacements – some with lambs at foot – to nearby flocks in Warwickshire and surrounding counties.

The aim is to sell 250-300 a year, mainly off farm, and a smaller number through Stratford market. Weaned lambs are finished on roots over winter and marketed from January to March the following year.

He says: “I aim to have a flock of 1,000 breeding ewes one day.

I was helped tremendously by John Simpson, now sadly passed away, who farmed locally and was a great mentor in my early days with North Country Mules. He knew the breed and he understood the farmers he provided replacement ewes to.”




At NEMSA sales, Mr Spencer selects ewe lambs with dark heads and tight fleeces from what he calls ‘the better end’ of the trade, having built up knowledge of which flocks have done well for him in previous years.

“There are two key benefits to buying through NEMSA. Firstly, the ewe lambs have been bred properly and, secondly, the lambs are all tagged identically. This is important for me when I come to offer them as replacements, they all look uniform.”

He adds: “I also buy about 500 store lambs through the [Cockermouth and Kirkby Stephen] sales and run up to 1,100 store lambs split into three groups, with another group of breeders on 180 acres of winter roots, grown on contract on farms and estates mainly in the Cotswold hills.

“Without good handling equipment and use of electronic ID [EID] I could probably only manage 400 head on my own.”

Having set up from scratch offering contract services such as shearing, drafting and jetting, a chance to progress came with an application through the Farming and Forestry Improvement Scheme. A 40 per cent grant allowed him to invest £30,000 in new handling, weighing and a five-way drafting gate using EID as a key management tool.




He says: “It has been a game-changer. Whereas before I would consider drafting and weighing 900 stores to be a good day’s work for three people, I can now manage it myself in about five hours with my dogs. This is a serious saving, but it is also a long-term saving.

“As farmers, I think when sheep margins are tight we can think investment is not possible. But it is a long-term investment which will improve the efficiency of the flock.

“For example, a good handling system at £10,000 may seem beyond most farmers’ pockets but I find myself asking how much labour could I get for that? And at the end of a day the labour has gone, but a handling system is there for life.”

This point of view has been undoubtedly tempered by his practical experience. Having been part of a high-throughput shearing team while also jetting between 25,000-30,000 sheep annually and managing a 400-ewe North Country Mule flock for a local farm business, the need for effective handling systems and labour-saving devices has become apparent.

He says: “I like New Zealand kit – the manufacturers share the way I think. It is why I also like Kelpie and Huntaway sheep dogs; they are built for the job. The same can be said of EID. Yes, it has it problems and there were grumbles when it was made compulsory, but EID has simplified the job of managing large numbers of sheep.”

An automated tag reader on the handling system’s weigh head is wirelessly connected to his mobile phone or a tablet, transferring EID data to form records of weights, routine management tasks such as worming, and records of movements.

“As I have learned to steer the technology I have found ways around the inevitable glitches,” he says.

“It is irritating you still get non-reader tags, but fortunately the five-way shedding gate will separate these for me and I can work them back into the records, even if it means replacing a tag.

“You still have to add a human element to records or you can end up with records which do not accurately reflect the performance of a flock or a batch of lambs. For example, inputting the reason for lamb losses.”




Aside from labour saving, the ability to draft lambs into batches according to 5kg or 10kg weight ranges has helped improve the targeted use of medicines, such as wormers.

Mr Spencer says: “The advice on most medicines is to dose according to the heaviest animal, but in large groups this could mean using a lot of product unnecessarily. Underdose and you risk contributing to resistance to wormers. The ease with which batches of lambs can be split in a short time and by one person has been a major improvement in my book.”

It also works for customers who contract him to weigh lambs to be batched for evenness ahead of finishing and sale through livestock markets or direct to abattoir. One area he would like to improve in future is feedback from markets and abattoirs to individual records in order to help identify which flocks and/or breeding lines produce lambs which achieve the greatest margins.

“When sheep margins are tight, an extra 0.5kg liveweight per lamb can make a difference. But the balance will be ensuring including more detail does not get too time-consuming.”

One area Mr Spencer has not made great strides in with technology is, disappointingly, the monitoring of individual lamb and/or whole flock financial margins. He sees this as still being some way off, describing himself as a ‘traditionalist’, relying instead on gut feel and end-of-year accounts to see the financial outcome.

He says: “The one thing I am sure of is better handling and the use of EID has made the job a whole lot less stressful and time-consuming – and this is important. While we want the sheep job to be profitable, I think we all farm because we also get something out of the lifestyle as well.”

Once the breeding sales are wrapped up, winter months are quieter for Mr Spencer. Routine tasks of checking stock daily are shared with wife, Emma – cutting time spent handling lambs drafted off roots weekly by using the mobile handlingraceway and EID reader.


He says: “Summer is a busy time for me as when I am not with the sheep, I am helping with neighbours’ cereal harvests. The only time I get to sit and think at this time of year is when I am on a tractor seat.

“Come autumn, when work eases, it is good to get a day when we can whip round the sheep, check all is well and get off for a day’s hunting or shooting. Having this balance is important and technology helps provide it.”

Farm facts

  • Main flock of 500 North Country Mule breeding ewes
  • 250-300 North Country Mule replacements sold annually
  • 1,100 store lambs finished off winter roots
  • £30,000 invested in handling, weighing, shedding
  • Contract shearing, jetting and weighing services
  • Technology reduces stress and increase output
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