Shearing pregnant ewes at housing is allowing a large-scale Welsh sheep enterprise to increase stocking density by 20 per cent and reduce pre lambing stress on the flock.
Debbie James reports...
Sheep farmers Hugh and Ann Tudor first adopted winter shearing at Tynberllan, near Aberystwyth, 30 years ago.
Ewes are scanned in December and at that point twin- and triple-bearing ewes are shorn, housed and introduced to self-feed silage. The singles are also scanned but not shorn until housing a month later.
Mr Tudor says: “The sheep are far healthier indoors if they have been shorn, they puff and pant if they have their thick fleeces.’’
The Tudors run a flock of 1,550 ewes on 243 hectares (600 acres), tupping 1,000 to lamb from February 8. Yearlings and ewes that had not achieved the target condition score at that point go to the ram later, to lamb in March.
The sheep are shorn with cover combs, often referred to as ‘snow combs’ which leave a residual layer of about two to three weeks of wool growth.
Once shorn, the ewes are penned according to the number of lambs they are carrying.
Six weeks before lambing, or four weeks if the silage quality is good, an 18 per cent protein meal is combined with silage in a diet mixer to feed to the ewes, topped up with concentrates dictated by litter size.
Mrs Tudor says: “The meal comes in powder form which means that the shyer ewes have as much chance of getting it as the greedy ones, which would not be the case if it was fed mixed with nuts."
As well facilitating a higher stocking density at housing, a shorter fleece is practical at lambing.
“You can see what is going on when they have no wool,’’ says Mr Tudor.
It also enables body condition to be quickly assessed, he adds.
“We can see what condition they are without putting a hand on their back and adjust the ration accordingly.’’
The flock also makes better use of forage because the ewe eats more to maintain her body heat, which helps with lamb viability. But that also means more manure.
“The one downside to winter shearing is that the sheds have to be cleaned out twice instead of once,’’ says Mrs Tudor.
Twins and triplets are housed for eight weeks post-shearing and singles for six weeks.
“The wool grows back thicker on a single than a ewe carrying multiple lambs,’’ Mrs Tudor says.
A ewe without a thick fleece is more likely to take her lambs to shelter when the weather is poor, she adds.
“The ewe and lamb have similar coverings of wool, so when the weather is rough the ewe will seek shelter with her lambs.’’
Thin and old ewes are not shorn – this equates to about 5 per cent of the flock. As the flock is only shorn once-a-year these are sold before summer.
“We cull the old ewes and there is a reason why ewes are thin so we sell them too,’’ says Mr Tudor.
Acreage is fragmented with several parcels of offlying land and, with sheep grazing multiple blocks some distance from Tynberllan, it would be a challenge to shear in summer, he adds.
“It is much easier to shear when they come back to Tynberllan for lambing.
“We have to work around the weather which can be more difficult in winter. This time we brought them in on a Monday and sheared the following Thursday.’’
To ease the fodder situation, the flock was housed two weeks later this season.
The flock is made up of Mule, Texel cross and Suffolk cross ewes, with Texel rams sourced from the annual National Sheep Association sale in Builth Wells and some bought privately.
Teasers run with the ewes for 20 days before the rams are turned in.
“That way they will go to the ram straight away,’’ says Mr Tudor.
The scanning average is 190-195 per cent, depending on the condition of ewes when they go to the tup, but this year it was down by 10 per cent.
“The dry summer hit the ewes hard and they were not in the condition we would have liked them in at tupping, about 2.5 body condition score instead of 3.5,’’ says Mr Tudor.
Lambing is a very busy period at Tynberllan Farm – it is not unusual for 200 lambs to be born in a 24-hour period.
To help the process run smoothly, every detail relating to the birth and lamb is recorded in a book. This system has worked well and there is no intention to move to electronic recording in the short-term.
“We have a night lamber who for obvious reasons is not available in the day to speak to about any issues that might have occurred in the night, but if everything is in the book the person taking over can see exactly what has been happening,’’ Mrs Tudor says.
“For instance, we make sure every lamb has sucked and this is included in the book. That way we know it has been checked.’’
This system means that there are few losses during the lambing period, which comes to an end in the middle of April.
“When we are lambing there is someone in the shed 24 hours a day and I do not expect to be losing lambs if I am paying someone to be in there 24 hours a day. If a lamb has died I want to know why,’’ says Mr Tudor.
There is a high proportion of triplets, so a lamb is adopted onto most singles and no ewe is turned out with three lambs.
After birth, lambs are in a pen with their mother for 24 hours and in a mixed pen of about 16 ewes and lambs for another 24 hours. They are then turned out to pasture which has had an opportunity to rest because fields have been allowed to rest for two months or so.
The earlier-born lambs are creep fed to get them to a sale weight of 20kg deadweight in May and June, while the later-born lambs graze improved hill ground 40 miles away to allow fields at Tynberllan to be shut off for silage.
The lambs return to the aftermaths and are fattened just off grass and sold from August through to the end of the year.
Some of the lambs are supplied to Waitrose through Welsh Livestock Marketing and others to Randall Parker, with all lambs sold by the end of December.
The aim is to achieve an R grade carcase or better, with most lambs falling into the E or U grades to capture the price premium.
About 400 ewe lambs out of Mule ewes are retained.
“We tup 60 of the strong ones but, because they have a tendency to produce twins, we hold the rest back for a year to lamb as yearlings,’’ says Mr Tudor.
The family also runs a herd of 100 British Blue crosses, sired to Limousin and Charolais bulls, with most of the cattle fattened but some sold as stores.
Mr Tudor says the business aims to produce the best lambs and cattle that it can but he does not rule out changing the system going forward if needed.
For winter shearing to be successful, ewes must be in the right condition, a minimum of 2.5 but preferably higher, maintains independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings.
She recommends ewes are housed and shorn at least eight weeks before turnout.
“Winter shearing is a good policy but the circumstances need to be right and the ewes need to have grown enough wool on their backs before turnout.’’
In those circumstances, winter shearing has multiple advantages, Ms Stubbings says.
“Ewes do not experience the same level of heat stress, they eat more forage and they are more settled.’’
Consequently, lambs are also bigger at birth, but Ms Stubbings warns that this can be problematic in single-bearing ewes.
“It is important to keep an eye on the feed intakes in the singles to make sure the lambs are not too big at birth,’’ she adds.
A shorn ewe will require 10-15 per cent less room in the shed than one that retains her fleece, but Ms Stubbings points out that they still need the same feeding space if sheds are stocked more densely as a result.
Allow 150mm per ewe for a total mixed ration, she says.
Winter shearing requires a guaranteed source of forage because ewes cannot be turned out for at least six to eight weeks, therefore feed budgeting is a must, says Ms Stubbings.
“They will also eat 10-15 per cent more than an unshorn ewe, so be sure to do your sums.’’