Innovation, attention to detail and fully embracing various technologies underpin the success of Rhys Edwards’ sheep flock, farmed on land above the South Wales valleys.
Gaina Morgan find out more...
Performance recording and a focus on grassland management are essential elements of the sheep business run by Rhys Edwards at the 101-hectare (250-acre) Hendre Ifan Goch, near Bridgend.
It is very much a family business, with 26-year-old Rhys working alongside his father Russ, while mum Eira is a vital part of the business.
His sister Amy even flies home from Edinburgh to help with lambing. Rhys’ choice to train as an electrician means he can always earn extra money off-farm, but he takes enormous pride in the sheep while ruefully noting the 600-ewe enterprise is ‘just about’ making money, aside from the subsidy.
However, repeated weighing, body condition scoring, monitoring of breeds and growth rates, combined with rotational grazing, plate meter measuring and reseeding has meant lambs are finishing well.
Rhys says: “This year, 97.8 per cent of our lambs hit the EUROP grid, so we are very pleased.
“Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) says 60 per cent is the national average this year, so I do not think we could do a lot better.
“We record everything at birth and do a lot of monitoring. The EID technology automatically gives us the readings and from there we can draft accordingly.
“For instance, when they come in the shed after scanning, we draft off yearlings or anything under body condition score 3, to ensure they are not having to compete with stronger ewes for food.”
Lambs are born in a tight period of three to four weeks, with a 1.7 per cent scanning percentage and are soon out on rotational grazing.
Lambs are weighed at birth, and then again at tagging and castration at four weeks when they come in for the first mineral drench and worming, and also at eight weeks and 12 weeks of age.
The 12-week weight also records the muscle depth of the lambs.
The target liveweight gain is 300g a day and so far this year they have been running at 290g at eight weeks. Anything achieving less than 150g is separated and fed pellets.
Technology is also allowing them to upgrade the flock, by culling out older ewes with bad feet or a poor lambing record and yearlings currently comprise a third of the flock.
The aim is to reduce lambing losses and this year they are on target for 10 per cent from scanning to sale.
The flock is also two years into the AHDB and HCC Ram Compare project and Rhys is enthusiastic about trialling different breeds.
The 400 white faced Mules are put to top rams, with artificial insemination used on 150 of them, and it means that this year Rhys has used Hampshire Downs, Blue Texel, Texel, Suffolk, Sufftex and Beltex.
The remaining 200 Welsh Mules are put to Aberfield and Bluefaced Leicester tups to breed replacement ewes.
Rhys explains ram performance is easily tracked via the mob grazing system.
He says: “At tupping, an even bunch of 50 ewes are single sire mated. Rams are tested pre-tupping to make sure they are working and that reduces the risk of doing the single sire mating.
“The group of ewes have a cycle and half with each individual tup, and we record which ewe is with which ram, so at lambing we can identify the sire.”
Rhys says this system means they know exactly how each sire is performing, and with all the tups usually having estimated breeding values in the top 5-10 per cent of the breed, it allows comparison of the best of each breed.
“Ultimately, at the end of the project, it will be nice to see which rams suit our system best, to make us the most money,” he says.
“We look at days to slaughter as one of the key factors. Birthweight is also key, as is killing out percentage. Then E and U grades are more profitable to us than R grades.”
A focus on grassland utilisation begins with feeding the ewe. Cake feeding with ad lib silage has been replaced by a total mixed ration (TMR), with 16ha (40 acres) set aside for silage, which is cut and clamped at optimum stage using the farm’s forager.
Rhys says the implementation of TMR feeding helped reduce feed costs by £3,000 a year, and ewes are healthier, suffering from fewer prolapses due to their ‘comfier’ diet.
“We have our silage analysed prior to buying straights, and results this year led to us using a high protein based soyabean meal product,” he says.
“The ewes only need 50g per lamb carried and we add sugar beet and a straight mineral to make up the ration with 4-5kg of silage per head per day. The twins and singles are separated, so obviously the twins get more than the singles and the triplets get more again.
“Then we body condition score the ewes, so if necessary they can have a bit more if needed and they are not feeding the lamb off their back.
“It means when they go out in spring they have a better back on them and they milk better.”
Ewes and lambs are grazed on a rotation of eight 4ha (10-acre) paddocks, moved every three days dependent on grass growth, which is measured using a plate meter.
Rhys says regular measuring ensures they are disciplined in putting sheep into a paddock at the desired 2,200kg dry matter, and taking them out again at 1,500kg.
Direct drilling has ‘spiced up’ a few old leys, plantain has been scratched in and 2ha (five acres) of winter rye has this year produced an early bite for lambs going out before grass starts growing, meaning there is no need to buy in concentrates.
As well as the sheep flock, the family is also busy with a number of farm diversifications, including a wedding venue, camp site and renewable energy generation.
“We have a 60-pitch caravan and camping site, with 58 electrical hook ups, toilet block and showers,” Rhys says.
“We would have to sell an extra 2,500 lambs a year to bring in the income the campsite is bringing in – and caravans do not die and are a lot less work.”
The two metres of rainfall each year is put to good use, with a 5.5kW hydro generator supplying all the electricity, in combination with the ground source heater.
Rhys is intent on continually fine tuning the sheep side of the business, but his policy is to only worry about what is in their control. Brexit, climate change and the weather, he explains, are well beyond his remit.