One Gloucestershire sheep breeder is working hard to create a sustainable and open relationship with buyers. Aly Balsom reports.
Shepherd Geraint Powell believes selling cross-bred ewe lambs off-farm at a known price and encouraging open dialogue with buyers ensures a sustainable, long-term working relationship.
Over the last four years he has seen demand for Aberfield cross Romney ewe lambs – and more recently Aberfield cross Lleyn females – increase markedly. Having sold about 240 to one buyer in 2012, he now sells more than 1,000 a year to about six to eight buyers. He puts the upsurge in interest down to a growing number of farmers looking to address costs and select a ewe with a good constitution and ability to thrive off forage alone.
For Mr Powell, creating a trusting relationship with buyers has also proved highly valuable in building a network of farmers who return year on year to purchase sheep direct from the farm.
He says: “It is all about sustainability. People know they can come to me and buy all the lambs off one farm. It is a sustainable price for us to sell and our customer to buy. I am very conscious of the fact we need a relationship where we stay in business and work together.”
Lamb price is decided by Mr Powell and is a reflection of fat lamb price at the time of sale. As a result, buyers have a greater handle on what they will need to spend. They also have the confidence of buying from one farm of known health status, which reduces potential biosecurity risk.
“It is a great model. They are buying sheep with lower disease risk and they do not have to go into the market place not knowing what they are going to spend. To me, the benefit is we get to sell a large number of lambs in one day so the transaction of cost is in our control,” adds Mr Powell.
The business holds an on farm collection day around the last few weeks of July where prospective buyers can come along and assess stock. Existing customers can also use the day to place orders for ewe lambs. Mr Powell will then weigh the lambs and split them up so every buyer gets a proportion of differing weights.
The template used by the business is similar to that adopted as part of Innovis’s recently launched cross-bred ewe trading partnership. As part of the scheme, prospective buyers can visit the Innovis website to find sellers of cross-bred ewes produced by recorded, Innovis tups, such as the Aberfield.
Matt Harding, Innovis business development manager for central England, says the new scheme is about facilitating relationships between buyers and sellers. He believes the ability to buy direct from farmers has huge benefits, but specifically surrounding health.
“The health side is really important. We are trying to align buyers and sellers with similar health profiles and trying to get sellers to understand their own health status and promote that,” he explains.
Feedback from buyers on how ewes have performed is actively encouraged and is something Mr Powell believes is vital to help management evolve.
“I want to know how the sheep have performed and what I can do better to keep the whole thing going forward. We are generally going in the right direction and the positive feedback we get is around ease of lambing and good mothering ability,” he says.
Some of the main improvements made have been around adopting a stronger ewe culling strategy. Five years ago replacement rate was about 36 per cent, but this has dropped to 22 per cent as improvements have been made. This will drop further.
“We do not do any recording, but we select heavily for unproductive traits. So that is culling for anything which has scanned empty, poor mothering, bad feet – anything which is unproductive,” says Mr Powell.
With 2,700 New Zealand Romney ewes and 1,350 Lleyn ewes plus replacements run across various pockets of rented ground, all in higher level/entry leve stewardship, the whole system is geared around producing a sheep which will thrive on lower quality forage. As more land has come up for rent, so have sheep numbers increased and breed selection evolved.
The crunch point came in 2004 shortly after Mr Powell took over duties as a self-employed shepherd. As more land became available, the decision was made to replace the existing 600 ewe Mule flock with 800 Romneys.
“I knew they could be a sheep which would fit our system. They are good forage converters and fairly cheap to keep,” Mr Powell says.
Ewes were purchased from varying sources, but predominantly direct from farm, with an emphasis on getting the right shape ewe, with good genetics as a starting point.
The flock was then closed and quality rams with ’good growth and mothering abilities’ selected from Steve Welton to produce replacements. For about six years, the flock underwent a period of expansion with few surplus females produced and castrated males sold as stores or finished lambs. Two years ago, the business also bought all of Steve Welton’s stud flock of 200 Romney ewes. In 2011, Mr Powell then made the move to introduce Aberfield recorded tups, which are used on a proportion of females.
“The youngest and oldest Romneys are put back to Romney as the oldest ewes are proven for longevity and the youngest are the newest genetics. We then keep the females as replacements,” says Mr Powell.
The Aberfield rams are then used on the remaining females. Mr Powell says what attracted him to the breed was its ability as a terminal and maternal breed.
“I liked what Innovis was doing with their genetic programme and the work they were doing on improving the production traits of sheep, rather than cosmetic traits. I knew an Aberfield on a Romney would produce saleable breeding females and the male lambs would grow well,” he says.
Since 2011, four to five Aberfield tups have been bought in every year with selection based around positive EBVs for growth and maternal traits. These rams are used to produce around 1,100 Aberfield cross ewe lambs and 400 Aberfield cross shearlings. This currently includes a small proportion of Lleyn cross Aberfields produced from the business’s new Lleyn flock which was established 18 months ago following the acquisition of a substantial block of rented ground. However, most Lleyns are kept pure so as to breed replacements and build the flock to a target 2,200 ewes next year.
Most of the male cross-bred and pure lambs will be castrated and sold as stores or export lambs or finished, depending on the market, demand and cashflow. The business also breeds their own Romney and Lleyn tups.
“Breeding rams have to be twin born and twin reared with good growth rates – it is whichever are the biggest lambs at weaning, that are structurally correct” adds Mr Powell.
Breeding policy and how stock are managed mirror what buyers want, with no animal fed concentrate at any time.
“Our customers want lambs which will finish off forage and no concentrate and to manage ewes on forage and no concentrate. The cross-breds have good mothering abilities, good feet and legs and they are good foragers,” he adds.
After scanning, single bearing ewes are managed on grass. Twins and triplets are moved onto turnips, fodder beet or other cover crops, which are grown as part of the rotation on six arable units contract farmed in the area.
Three weeks before lambing they will then be moved onto grass and supplemented with fodder beet if grass growth is not sufficient. After lambing outside, ewes and lambs are then put in mobs of about 400 ewes and lambs and rotationally grazed.
With the business reliant on renting ground from landowners and largely selling stock direct to farmers, Mr Powell says maintaining relationships is the crux to the system.
“Our main challenges are weather, policy change and market fluctuations. But the three things which are our biggest challenges are also the things I cannot do much about. All I can do is make sure cost control is right and that I build a trusting relationship with landowners and buyers,” says Mr Powell.
Strictly adhering to the prescriptions of HLS/ELS is also vital to ensure continued use of land and to guarantee the land owners receive payments.
The fact the business takes no basic payment scheme themselves means running a profitable, sustainable business is a priority. Mr Powell says the arable and sheep work in harmony together, with livestock bringing huge benefits in terms of soil organic matter and black grass control. However, if you were to split the sheep enterprise away from the arable, it would still be profitable without subsidy. “We make a small profit per head, but on a large scale,” he adds.