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Making best use of grass to finish lambs

Adopting a dairy-minded approach to utilising rotational grazing and supplementary feed is allowing the Higgins family to finish 27 lambs/ha (11/ac) across 87ha (216ac) at Frodesley Park Farm, near Longnor. Simon Wragg reports.

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John Higgins and his son, Edward, who hosted a British Grassland Society meeting, run 1,400 Suffolk cross North County Mule ewes in three lambing groups – mid-February (270), March (800) and April (330) – to maximise use of higher quality spring grass. Lambs are finished at about 42kg liveweight and sold deadweight on a flat-rate contract.

 

Edward explained: “We do not have sufficient grass here so all replacement ewe lambs are over-wintered on Badminton Estate in Wiltshire as one mob. Older ewes go to a relative’s dairy farm next door to eat out the grass before moving on to stubble turnips.

 

“We prefer the Suffolk ewes for early lambing with the aim of having their progeny off the farm from May 1. These make use of better quality spring grass supplemented with an average of 37kg/lamb creep feed. By mid-July lambs are flying out the gate – about 150 per week – with the aim of having the farm cleared of lambs in October. This allows time for grass to recover ahead of lambing.”

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While some producers may see the level of reliance on supplementary feeding for finishing lambs as costly, it allows the Higgins to achieve a high turnover of stock on a limited acreage.

 

John said: “We are on clay loam soil rising to 700ft. We reseed about 20 acres per year, usually in autumn, so we are not taking grazing out of production when we need it most in spring.”

Ewes and lambs are grazed rotationally with larger fields split into four with temporary electric fencing. Stock is moved simultaneously on two areas at a time, explained Edward.

 

“We like to force the grass to grow. Grazing is measured by eye and anything getting away will either be doubled stocked or shut up for silage as part paddocks split with electric fencing.”

The intensity of grazing sees many weeds kept back including docks. Anything not grazed by sheep is spot sprayed using a hand lance, he added.

 

“Challenges here include going from grass to grass. We have no arable crops, so annual meadow grass can be a problem. And due to the loss of some sprays control of frit fly and leatherjackets is a concern.”

 

Gut worm challenge is suppressed by the level of creep feed consumed. Lambs have access to three-in-one feeders placed within the grazing areas which dispense locally procured cereal and a pelleted protein concentrate.

 

“In early season we use a 16 per cent concentrate dropping it to 14 per cent from mid-June. As the lamb price dips across summer feeders will be shut down forcing lambs to eat more grass.”

Prime lambs get priority to better quality summer grazing higher up the farm with dried off ewes being used to ‘annihilate’ older, stemmy grass if it gets away from the flock.

 

To maintain sward health, regular soil analyses for pH and nutrient levels is carried out. The unit is prone to being low in sulphur; an issue addressed by fertiliser choice.

 

With a dairy farm approach to rotational grazing, lambs are typically ready to be marketed from 12 weeks old. These are drafted weekly at 42-43kg liveweight for a target carcase weight of 20.5kg. The destination abattoir pays to 22kg without penalty preferring concentrate-fed lambs for better conformation, they suggested.

 

Edward added: “We sell through an intermediary which organises the transport for collection. Others have suggested we may be better off dealing direct but taking into account the extra labour required – principally to deliver lambs to the plant – I am unsure we would benefit.”

 

To ensure lambs perform well at grass, the business operates a comprehensive vaccination programme. Use of cocci-impregnated bucket licks helps build immunity. Fluke is not an issue. Likewise, ewes are vaccinated for both types of ovine abortion, pasturella and, recently, footrot.

Daily tasks are managed with help from John’s wife, Jennie, and Edward’s wife, Hannah, who is also the farm vet. Students are employed during lambing and teaser rams are being used to tighten the lambing period.

 

“It is a very tight system,” said Edward. “Singles are a waste of time here and we have too many triplets, possibly as a result of looking after ewes too well, so cross foster extensively. We will still end up rearing 80-90 lambs on a milk machine each year for a number of reasons.”

 

The farm also carries 1,200 pigs taken through to finishing on a bed-and-breakfast contract. Used bedding material is valued as part of the fertiliser programme helping ameliorate cost from a high-input/high output sheep system.

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