Accuracy and attention to detail are central to the system at Church Farm, North Stoke, working to produce consistent finishing lambs for a commercial outlet. Hannah Park finds out more.
Kevin Harrison has been farm manager for J.T. Baylis at Church Farm, North Stoke, near Bath, for the past 20 years, managing a 770-head flock of North Country Mules plus followers to produce finishing lambs for a Randall Parker Foods contract supplying Sainsbury’s.
The 194-hectare (480-acre) farm comprises 113ha (280 acres) of permanent pasture, 45ha (110 acres) of spring barley and some 20ha (50 acres) of stubble turnips.
All ewes are put to a Suffolk cross Texel tup, with 150 North Country Mule ewe lamb replacements bought in from the same farm in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, each year.
“It suits our system to buy in replacements, which we can out-winter on the stubble turnips and run on to lamb as yearlings on marginal land which is not suitable for ewes and lambs,” explains Mr Harrison.
“The group are scab-dipped before reaching us and are fluke and Zolvix drenched when they arrive. We also vaccinate ewe lambs against toxo and enzo abortion.”
Lambing is done indoors from mid-March over three weeks and sees two vet students, a night lamber and self-employed shepherd added to the workforce over this period, alongside Mr Harrison who ordinarily manages the flock day-to-day on his own.
“Lambing as tightly as we do in the shed space we have means we have to get it right,” he adds.
“We look after the ewe leading up to this point to get her to the right condition to produce plenty of milk and strong lambs which can be turned out within 24 hours of birth.
“Getting it wrong is when work stacks up in the lambing shed, with problem cases filling up pen space.”
Tupping takes place from mid-October, with raddle colours changed weekly in the first three weeks to keep track of lambing windows for ewes which is followed by red in the fourth week, so any returners can be identified.
Ewes are shorn in the first week in January, before being turned into house through until lambing.
“We have always shorn in the winter and find it makes ewes more comfortable in the shed, alters their metabolic rate so they eat an optimal amount and also means we can keep an eye on body condition score (BCS) more easily,” Mr Harrison adds.
“Turnout with less wool is no bad thing either. Even last year when we had snow and it was colder than usual, ewes will find shelter and the lambs will follow instead of sitting in the middle of the field. If it is wet, they soon dry out.”
In the lambing shed, ewes are split into groups according to raddle colour, scan and BCS, so each group can be fed accordingly on a ‘straw and nut’ feeding system which Mr Harrison introduced.
This sees square bale straw sections put in each pen daily and a 20 per cent protein nut scattered among it on the ground for the sheep to rummage for.
A flat rate is fed to each group, which for twins sees 0.75kg/day of concentrates rising to 1kg/day three weeks before lambing together with 1kg to 1.5kg straw/day.
A proportion of wastage is allowed for in the straw allocation, which is then used as bedding.
“A good quality nut is vital for this system, as this is where the quality is coming from in the ewes’ diet at this point,” he says.
“They root through the straw and eat the more palatable content, and the rest is waste which keeps them well-bedded and clean.”
In pursuit of consistent high flock-health status, the farm has been working with sheep vet, Philippa Page, at sheep veterinary consultancy Flock Health, for the past two years, an arrangement which incorporates two visits per year (pre-tupping and pre-lambing) plus regular communication in-between.
This provides an opportunity to carry out ram health checks, blood testing of ewes to test for iceberg diseases, namely MV, discuss nutrition and ewe condition and generally address any health issues or otherwise which may have occurred during the year.
One idea which arose on the back of these meetings is the purchase of a refractometer this year to measure the protein content of colostrum from each ewe.
“We are always looking for ways and means of making improvements, and for £20 [the cost of the refractometer], it was worth a go,” Mr Harrison says.
“We want the flock to be as healthy as it can be, so it can do its best for us and provide consistent returns.”
Protein content of 22 per cent or above is considered good quality colostrum, explains Mr Harrison.
Any lambs on a ewe with a percentage lower than this receives supplementary colostrum and a dose of spectam, alongside triplets or any special cases.
In-line with a move away from blanket antibiotic treatment in the lambing shed in the past few years, Mr Harrison has also moved away from drenching all the ewes on turnout with lambs at foot.
“Following SCOPS advice, we are no longer treating fit ewes or those turned out with singles,” he says.
“A bit like antibiotic use, it takes a bit of persuading yourself and it is having the confidence to move away from it as an insurance policy.”
Once outside, ewes are fed 0.5kg/head of concentrate for three weeks after turnout, with lambs offered an 18 per cent nut ad-lib from two weeks of age to achieve growth rates of 0.35kg to 0.5kg/day.
Lambs are sold to Randall Parker Foods for Sainsbury’s via May Hill Collection centre, Newark, which sees weekly weighing to draw finished lambs once lambs have been weaned at the end of June using a Pratley auto-drafter.
Lambs are generally sold in batches of 150 to 300 and will have all been sold off the farm by mid-September.
“The auto-drafter has probably more than paid for itself in the 10 years since we bought it,” Mr Harrison explains.
“We have pushed our average carcase weights up by 1kg and improved accuracy and efficiency when selecting lambs in the process.
“Creeping the lambs also means we can wean earlier, which takes the pressure off the ewes ahead of tupping the following season.
“With the rate lambs are sold post-weaning, there is less competition for autumn grass and means we can give the ewes quality pasture to get them into condition for tupping [aiming for a BCS of three to 3.5 for tupping, dropping to on average 2.5 to three pre-lambing].”