A combination of New Zealand composite breeds and outdoor lambing is used to generate enough profit to pay the wages of two full-time shepherds on a mixed estate farm near York. Wendy Short reports.
Some 3,300 ewes make up the flock at Stuart Stark’s 1,214-hectare (3,000-acre) Fridlington Farms Estate, which is run in partnership with his son Callum. They also produce potatoes, a range of arable crops and have a large breeding and finishing pig unit.
The flock is based on the Highlander, a self-replacing, maternal breed composite, with the Primera composite used as a terminal sire.
The current policy is in contrast to the system adopted until 2004, when the farm had one shepherd and put 1,500 Mules to Texel rams. This was changed for several reasons.
Stuart says: “The closure of the local sugar beet factory made it uneconomical to grow the crop and we were looking for another break, so expanding grassland made sense.
“The withdrawal of ewe headage payment prompted the rethink, because without it the sheep enterprise did not stack up. This was when we turned to composite breeds and went to New Zealand to see them on commercial farms before making our investment.
“The Highlander and the Primera are good grazers and both produce a mature ewe weight of about 70kg. They are competitively priced for the UK market, with ram prices starting at about £600.”
During lambing, which starts in mid-April, shepherds will only bring ewes and lambs inside in cases of mismothering or when lambs have become chilled.
The exception is pet lambs, which are reared on a milking machine. The mortality rate of 14-15 per cent is no higher than some indoor lambing units, says Stuart.
He points to the increasing difficulty in finding skilled shepherds and counts himself lucky to leave the day-to-day flock management to long-standing employee and sheepdog trials enthusiast Ian Murdoch.
He has recently been joined by Calum Sutherland and the flock is being expanded to 4,000 ewes to more fully utilise labour, which currently stands at about £14/ewe.
Stuart says: “It comes down to a question of how shepherds use their time to contribute to enterprise profitability. Looking after sheep in buildings has a high labour requirement, but it does not stop there.
“It is very time-consuming to move ewes and lambs around, especially as grazing land is scattered around the farm.”
To increase lifetime productivity, replacement ewe lambs which reach 40kg at tupping are bred in their first year, with the remainder carried over to the next season.
“Our ewe lambs are strip-grazed on stubble turnips for part of winter, while ewes graze fodder beet. We have found the young sheep simply cannot cope with fodder beet and have a tendency to lose or damage their immature teeth when they bite into it.
“Fodder crops play an important role on the unit and give good value for money, at a cost of about £4/head.”
Due to their prolificacy, composite ewes are not flushed, because the aim is to keep triplet numbers to a minimum. Last year’s scanning figures show Highlander ewes and gimmers at 207 per cent at scanning and ewe lambs at 120 per cent.
No concentrate feed is offered, aside from glucose buckets for ewes carrying twins. One Highlander ram is used per 80 ewes, with lambing over a five-week period. Stocking rate averages five ewes and lambs to the acre, with larger fields divided into smaller paddocks and set-stocked.
Stuart says: “Highlander ewes lamb easily, due to their relatively small heads and shoulders and they have good mothering ability.
“They produce thrifty lambs and have performed well on our system. Innovis, the company which developed the composites in New Zealand, draws from a wide genetic pool which is rigorously performance-recorded, with emphasis on meat yield.
“Innovis has recently made a slight adjustment and brought in more shape, which is a better fit for the UK market.”
The outdoor lambing policy relies on keeping flock young, with ewes generally sold on after their third crop.
Stuart says: “Prolificacy increases as ewes get older, so they will go on to perform well in other flocks, perhaps those which have the facilities to bring triplets inside and mother them on.”
Weaning takes place in August and the aim is to maximise the number of finished lambs – the current figure is 75 per cent – produced off grass.
To this end, Stuart has invested considerable time in monitoring grass production on five-year leys. This has provided a clear picture of growth curves and yields and has allowed him to set a goal of grazing the sward from 2,100kg of dry matter/hectare (850kg/acre) down to 1,500kg on lighter land.
The mixture sown on lighter soils includes cocksfoot and chicory, which helps to lift protein content of forage, which is mainly grazed.
Stuart says: “Cocksfoot mixes have to be grazed hard, otherwise plants become fibrous and sheep will reject them. But plants have long roots and their drought tolerance is valuable, especially if we get a dry summer.
“A perennial ryegrass mix containing white clover is used on more robust soils.”
Finishing lambs which fail to reach the target weight are brought into the buildings, although some may go as stores, depending on the season. To minimise this final period, they are fed silage or straw, plus a mixture of sugar beet and malt and distillers’ pellets, at a cost of about £2-£3/head.
An on-farm trial to compare live and dead price returns has led to the entire crop being sold deadweight. The aim is for a liveweight of 43kg-plus, which translates to an average deadweight of 20kg.
Some three-quarters will hit the R3L specification and receive the full premium.
Stuart is a strong supporter of the live auction system, however, and cull ewes go through this outlet. About half are sold as gelds after scanning and, if feed is plentiful, they leave in late October after being fattened on volunteer rape.
Further changes are already underway at Fridlington Farms, as the top 200 Highlander ewes have been selected to form a nucleus flock, from which breeding sheep will be sold from next year onwards.
EID is currently used in a limited capacity, but the system will be fully exploited to monitor the new flock.
Stuart says: “Composites are not as docile as some of our traditional breeds and because flocks are moved around the farm frequently, it is essential shepherds have good dogs.”
Despite his enthusiasm for New Zealand composites, Stuart stops short of fully endorsing the country’s management system.
He says: “New Zealand sheep farms are typically several thousand acres and it is much easier to benefit from economies of scale.
“They also have the advantage of a milder climate. On most UK farms, especially those which rely on family labour, every lamb counts and it is unlikely our system could be replicated successfully on a smaller unit.
“Sheep remain profitable, as long as the price of wheat is not more than £140/tonne. But grassland contributes to soil organic matter, which is important for our light soils and arable yields are boosted for three to four years, following a ley.
“Grass also provides an outlet for our pig slurry, but I will admit I simply like to have livestock on-farm.”