Lambing more than 2,000 ewes in less than three weeks is always a challenge, but the worst of the winter’s weather came at just the wrong time for one Leicestershire sheep enterprise. Angela Calvert reports.
The first week of lambing saw a foot of snow and the second week two inches of rain at Redhill Farm, Barrowden in Leicestershire.
Jamie Wild, flock manager, for Dennis Tyler and Son, says: “We try to keep lambing tight and had been looking to reduce it by a few days this year but we were really up against it because of the conditions which proves with have got it as tight as is realistically possible.”
Mr Wild, who has worked for the farm’s owners, Charles and Richard Tyler for 22 years, manages their 2,000 North Country Mules which run alongside a 1,214 hectare (3000-acre) arable business as well as his own 200 ewe pedigree Redhill Charollais flock.
Mr Wild says: “We have tried other breeds but for us nothing beats the Mule.”
About 450-500 are bought in as replacements each year from the same two farms.
Mr Wild says: “We have been buying them this way since foot and mouth but it works well for both sides and means that the sheep do not have to go through a market which is stressful for them and they do not need to mix with other sheep which is better for us in terms of biosecurity.”
All ewes are put to home-bred Charollais rams. The pedigree flock was established five years ago to produce rams for their own use as Mr Wild says he was struggling to buy the type of ram to use on the commercial flock which suited their extensive grass based system.
Teaser rams are used and the ewes them mob mated in batches of 500 with one ram to about 40 ewes.
Mr Wild says we like to get them tupped rapidly and expect each ram to serve two ewes twice a day.
“Charollais work for us at the beginning and end of the cycle. They are easy lambing and vigorous at birth with get up and go. They produce lambs which will finish quickly but are flexible and if needed to be kept a bit longer will not get fat.”
The pedigree flock management mirrors that of the commercial flock being grass reared and not fed any concentrates apart from as lambs.
About 12 shearling rams are retained each year for their own use which leaves a surplus of about 80 which are sold directly off farm mainly to repeat customers. All pedigree lambs are sheared at the end of July and the best females are retained as replacements.
Mr Wild says: “I like to keep the pedigree flock young to keep improving it by retaining the best genetics. I do buy two or three rams from the premier Charollais sales each year to introduce some new bloodlines and improve genetics.”
The pedigree flock is performance recorded and 15 ram lambs are taken to Edinburgh each year for CT scanning.
Mr Wild says: “Recording is as much for our own benefit as anything. The information it provides enables you to build up a picture of what is happening within the flock and what is working or not.
Mr Wild manages the flock with the help of one other member of staff who splits his time between the sheep and arable enterprise with additional help at lambing time.
This year due to the bad weather holding up the remainder of the arable staff with their own work they were drafted in to help.
Mr Wild says: “When we are lambing one person does the night shift and the rest of us work during the day when the biggest job is moving ewes and lambs outside.
“I try to make sure that no-one, apart from sometimes myself, works more than a 12-hour shift as if you are too tired you cannot do the job properly and are not productive.”
Ewes with triplets have one lamb wet fostered on to those with a single.
Mr Wild says: “The advantage of lambing so many at once is that we can foster on and we do the singles well pre-lambing with this in mind. The aim is to turn every ewe out with two lambs.”
Once inside ewes are fed a TMR to appetite thorough a feeder wagon. This is based on home-grown grass silage and a blend which includes soya, wheat and sugar beet plus minerals.
Mr Wild says: “We have been feeding like this for about 10 years and is much less stressful for everyone and work with our nutritionist, John Bland, Manor Farm Feeds on both ewe and lamb rations.
Ewes continue to be fed a 19 per cent concentrate up until April or when there is sufficient grass. From about three weeks old lambs are fed creep based on home-grown barley and beans plus sugar beet pellets.
Disease challenge is one of the biggest issues when lambing such a large number of sheep inside and last year, along with many others, for the first time, the flock experienced large numbers of lambs with joint ill.
“We have not really got to the bottom of the cause of this. I believe it could be related to the quality and effectiveness of more recently manufactured rubber docking rings, combined with the fact that some bugs are getting more resistant but we cannot be certain.
“We did a trial ourselves leaving some lambs undocked and there were no problems with joint ill. This year, as another precaution, we have not tagged lambs until they are three to four week old rather than at birth as we normally do to reduce another potential infection site.”
This season the major problem has been rotavirus in the lambs which has affected many farms nearby, so much so that it has been officially declared an epidemic in the area and is still being investigated by the VLA.
Mr Wild says: “I have no idea why this has happened this year but combined with the extreme cold has been a big problem. Lambs can cope with a certain amount but when they are dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia at the same time it is really difficult to treat them.
“I would be interested to know how many other farmers have had problems with this and joint ill and if they had found out the reasons behind it.”
Once they have been turned out all further procedures on the lambs are carried out in the field using a purpose built mobile trailer which has multiple uses.
At three to four weeks old lambs are tagged, vaccinated against clostridial diseases and treated for fly strike and as they approach finishing they are weighed weekly. Regular faecal egg counts are taken to monitor worms.
All lambs are sold deadweight to Woodhead Brothers with the aim being to have 70 per cent of lambs sold by the end on June to early July.
Mr Wild says: “We work closely with Woodheads and let them know the previous week what we have and they will tell us the price. We are selling into their grid which is 16-21kg deadweight, but we have always found them to be fair to deal with and competitive.
“They send a lorry for about 500 lambs at a time or sometimes we will share a load with a neighbour.
“Early finishing suits our system and fits in with the arable side of the business meaning most of the lambs are away before they get to their busy time.”
All the mules are put to Charollais rams.
This lambing time has been challenging to say the least but with the weather starting to improve and grass and lambs now growing Mr Wild says: “The positive thing to come out of this winter has been the support farmers in the area have given each other.
“We have always worked together and helped each other out but more recently have set up a Whats App group of local sheep farmers. We share what is happening and the problems we are having and ask if we need help.
“Farming can be isolated and it is really good to be able to talk to someone who is having the same problems and makes you realise you are not the only one. As the saying goes a problem shared is a problem halved.”