Producing lambs for the Easter market is a challenge, but Alan Bickley has developed a system to take advantage of the premium price available. Rebecca Jordan paid him a visit. PICTURES: Sam Clarke.
The success of Alan Bickley’s Poll Dorset sheep enterprise at Mill House, Puddington, near Tiverton, Devon, is based on two parameters.
The first is Easter. Historically, a £20/lamb advantage is available prior to this traditional weekend compared with immediately afterwards. Therefore, Mr Bickley lambs half his flock from November to ensure most lambs finish in time. This year will be a challenge due to Easter falling early and wet conditions disrupting growth rates.
This system is dependent on winter grass keep, which is the other major force.
Mr Bickley says: “I have to take winter sheep keep because we do not have enough ground of our own. My father did as well and he established a system which optimised this grass: it was a waste to just put ewes there when there is enough grass to finish lambs as well.”
Even though Puddington is not traditional early-lambing country, the land is sloping so drains well and grows grass all-year-round. Mr Bickley’s system incorporates catch crops, such as kale, which enhance growth rates and reduce reliance on creep feeding.
The grass he rents belongs to farmers who keep cattle which are housed over winter. It is a symbiotic relationship which has worked well for many years.
A 300-strong early lambing flock consists of older ewes and ewe lambs born the previous winter. Rams go in at the beginning of June, so ewes start lambing from mid-November.
However, they must come out on July 20 to ensure nothing lambs after December 14 to avoid lambing over Christmas. They scanned at 170 per cent, as did the March lambing flock.
Ewes in both flocks must be in good enough condition to milk well at lambing. Mr Bickley therefore houses them about three weeks earlier and offers an 18 per cent ewe nut at a rate of 0.45kg/day.
Ewes rearing singles are not fed post-lambing, whereas those with doubles receive on average 0.68kg/day for three weeks, depending on grass growth. Hay is offered ad-lib and mineral tubs are always available.
At turnout, twins are offered a 20 per cent protein creep pellet which is generally taken at a rate of 0.5kg/day, depending on grass availability. Singles are strip-grazed on kale and usually do not require creep to finish in time at the correct weight.
Mr Bickley says: “If we are to make money from early lambers, I need to be able to pick most lambs at the end of March or beginning of April.
“I have to be careful lambs do not weigh more than 40kg liveweight to satisfy the export market, as some kill out at half-weights. Last year, they returned £90-£95/head and this year looks as though it is going to be similar.
“It is vital their progress is not checked in any way. One year, we had an outbreak of orf which was a disaster, so, even though it is expensive, I religiously vaccinate all lambs at two to three days old.
“They are also offered mineral tubs specifically produced to help control orf. For the same reason, ewes are scratched under the tail when they are docked at scanning.”
Other debilitating diseases, such as pulpy kidney and pasturella, are avoided as best as can be hoped for by vaccinating ewes pre-lambing. They are also drenched at lambing and when put to ram for liver fluke and intestinal worms.
Mr Bickley says: “Again, this is not cheap, but I cannot afford for these lambs to experience any checks in their finishing, especially this year when Easter is so early.
Mr Bickley likes to keep his ewe flock young and so makes use of another available marketing opportunity. Full-mouth and older ewes in the early lambing flock are sold as couples once established after lambing. They returned, on average, £60/life in December when sold through Exeter market, down £10/life on 2014.
He says: “Doing this is a great way to generate cashflow at a different time of the year, keep the flock young, reduce stocking density on grass availability and it results in less cull ewes – a difficult market to predict especially this year.”
Mr Bickley also achieved £20-£30/lamb for pet lambs in the market at the same time of year.
As lambs are sold, ewes are kept tighter, but Mr Bickley is aware they are back with the ram within a couple of months.
Any ewes which do not hold to ram in the early flock are turned over into the 300-head March lambing flock. They go to ram in October and this flock also comprises of last year’s winter-born ewe lambs, as well as ewe lambs born in spring.
In recent years, Mr Bickley has noticed the six-tooth and full-mouth ewes which lamb in March, then again in November, are not doing as well as when he traditionally lambed them a month earlier in February.
Mr Bickley says: “I decided to lamb them in March just before the younger sheep, so we were not lambing for so long in spring and therefore cut down on labour.
“However, I have noticed these ewes are working too hard, especially when it is so wet, and so I think I shall return to lambing them in February to give them an extra month between lambings.”
Artificial fertiliser is normally spread in the middle of February at a rate of 250kg/ha on Mr Bickley’s own land, as well as the tenanted grass.
"I cannot afford for these lambs to experience any checks in their finishing"
Wet conditions this year mean this has been delayed until conditions allow. This ensures there is enough grass to finish lambs for Easter, when they come away from winter keep, as well as for the spring-lambing flock and flushing the November lambing ewes in May for June tupping.
As labour becomes increasingly difficult to find, Mr Bickley is considering reducing his overall flock size. He has already sold most of the Highlander ewes he bought-in a couple of years ago to make up a shortfall in replacement numbers.
These ewes, a composite maternal breed developed by Focus Genetics in New Zealand, produced too many lambs, with triplets being common, to maximise returns in his system.
He is aware how unpredictable the Easter trade has become over the past few seasons and is keen to focus his attention on the breeding sheep market.
With this in mind, he sees more potential in producing ewe lambs for autumn sales, where his stock achieved an average £85/head last year for March-born lambs. Ewe lambs from the November lambing flock are retained for breeding.
However, none of this success would have been possible without buying-in good quality rams. Mr Bickley is prepared to pay more than four figures at the breed’s May Fair for a quality ram which has length, good conformation and a decent back end. And to ensure he has fresh blood for ewe lambs, he would buy-in two or three rams each year.
And as the wool cheque is now holding its own at shearing time, wool is another key influence when picking rams. The early flock is shorn in May and the others in June.
Fleeces average £4 each and Mr Bickley received one of only a handful of certificates recently issued by the British Wool Marketing Board for the best wool in terms of quality and presentation.
Poll Dorset ewes which are due to lamb in March. When sold for breeding, March-born ewe lambs went for £85/per head last year.
This is a system which is finishing lambs when most farmers are still in the lambing shed. Mr Bickley may have little ground of his own, but he has honed a system which maximises every marketing opportunity while his management tries to ensure stock reach their intended market at the right time in the best possible condition.
These are ground rules which can be applied to any sheep enterprise.