For the Thomas family, lambing their Poll Dorset flock three times every two years helps achieve a consistent cashflow and works well with other farm enterprises, as Rebecca Jordan found out.
While most sheep farmers will just be starting to gear up for lambing time, Mark Thomas and his family have already lambed half the Southwin Poll Dorset flock at Treguddick Farm, South Petherwin, Cornwall.
This registered 300-ewe flock, established by Mark’s father David just over 50 years ago, still lambs three times every two years. This system contributes regular cashflow to the business, maximises the pricing opportunity in Waitrose’s Dorset Lamb scheme, compliments other farming enterprises and reduces labour demands when calving in spring and autumn.
David and Mark, along with Mark’s sons Luke and Nathaniel, also breed from 95 pedigree South Devons, buy-in 250 15-month-old native cross steers and heifers each year to finish as well as manage 223 hectares (550 acres) which are rotated between winter and spring barley, catch crops and grass leys.
Mr Thomas says: “Dad started lambing Poll Dorsets this way in 1964 because he could see the advantage of such a system on the limited acreage he had then. However, I would say it is a system which still holds its own in this day and age. At first it might seem quite complicated to manage, but the sheep are minimal trouble and fold into the other enterprises really well.”
The fact a percentage of lambs return, on average, a 120p/kg premium over open market prices helps. This is the second year the Thomas’ have signed an annual contract with Waitrose. Lambs born either mid-July to mid-August or mid-November to mid-December are eligible for this bonus as they are targeted to finish in the scheme’s prescribed window from January to the end of May. They must weigh no more than 21.5kg deadweight and be under eight months old at point of sale.
“Last spring when the hogg trade was back to 300p/kg, Waitrose’s lamb price was 535p/kg. If a producer had been a member of the scheme for more than two years the price they were offered for their lambs was 545p/kg,” says Mr Thomas.
Ewes lambing in November and December lamb indoors. Lambs are finished on a rape catch crop with creep at 18 per cent protein offered ad lib. When they achieve 40kg liveweight they are sent – straight off the ewes – to Jaspers abattoir. These ewes go back to ram in February and 25 ewe lambs are retained as replacements. The latter will lamb for the first time when 15 months old.
The other group of lambs which cash in on the Waitrose premium are off the 100 plus ewes which lamb mid-July to mid-August. These lamb outdoors and do not receive any creep – unless the weather deteriorates at the end of the year and grass growth is checked. They go to ram in October and the best ewe lambs are retained to be sold off the farm to other breeders.
Ewes lambing in spring – mid-March to mid-April – do so indoors. Their lambs are sent to Jaspers straight off grass with no creep offered. The ram is back in with this bunch in June and retained female lambs are entered in the society’s breed sale at Exeter market each May. The Thomas’ will also sell 10 shearling rams to pedigree breeders off the farm each year.
In all three flocks conception rate, year-on-year, stands at 90 per cent, with ewes lambing at 170 per cent. Any ewes not taking to the ram have the opportunity to run on into later-lambing flocks. However, the Thomas family is strict on culling for fertility; the flock is bred for prolificacy and they never retain a female which does not record a multiple birth. That policy applies to rams as well.
“Although conception rate is weather-dependent it is fairly consistent across the groups. Rams stay with the ewes for four weeks and are arranged in groups of no more than 70 ewes per ram,” says Mr Thomas. “As we are supplying both the commercial and breeders’ markets it is very important we source rams which will keep the balance within the flock between commercial requirements and breed traits.
“Last year we bought a ram from the McCarrys in Northern Ireland which we think is a very good example of a sheep achieving that. We are expecting his second crop of lambs now and are very pleased with what he has already produced.”
To emphasise this point Mr Thomas says spring-finished lambs grade an average 10 per cent E, 60 per cent U and 30 per cent R. The rest achieve 10 per cent E, 45 per cent U and 45 per cent R. This is accomplished on an average creep consumption of 20kg/lamb across the three lambings year-on-year.
Three to four weeks pre-lambing ewes are vaccinated against clostridial diseases. They are drenched for fluke and worms twice-a-year.
“We have not needed to move onto Zolvex yet; we alternate between white drenches and ivermectins,” says Mr Thomas.
This was one of the first flocks in the country to be maedi visna-accredited. In the past ewes have been exported from Treguddick to Libya, Hungary and Southwin ewes were the foundation of the first Poll Dorset flock in Guernsey. All bought-in rams register ARR/ARR for scrapie.
Sheep are rotated predominately across new leys. Short-term rye-grass leys are cut three times a year. Sheep follow onto the aftermath and then graze clover leys over winter. Rape and stubble turnips are also offered as these follow winter barley.
Rotation is key to success at Treguddick. Most of the arable land is injected (under licence) with by-products from Premier Foods at Lifton and Dairy Crest at Davidstow. The former is famous for Ambrosia; the latter for cheese and, more recently, the incremental demand for dried baby milk powder to China. As a result this free-draining loam soil requires very little nutrients – other than a small amount of nitrogen.
“In this economic and political climate I do think it is important we, as farmers, try and keep our businesses as simple as possible,” says Mr Thomas.
“The Poll Dorsets are an excellent way of trying to achieve that. They provide cashflow throughout the year, do a great job helping to maintain our grassland and by lambing groups at different times of the year we are able to keep an eye on the other enterprises without having to focus all our labour and time on one block of lambing.”