A significant reduction in twin lamb disease and a lift in lambing percentage of 20% are more than enough evidence to convince Powys sheep producer Andy Chilvers of the cost benefits of balancing trace element levels in his 600 breeding ewes.
But add in improved flock health, much easier lambing and noticeably greater lamb vigour and you can see why he believes the approach is one of the most important management decisions they have made.
Run as a family farm by himself and wife Tess with land rising up to 1100 feet above sea level, Andy is convinced the nutritional rethink also helped them get through a winter in which they were snowed in for a month, with no significant lamb losses.
“We know we have low levels of Selenium and Cobalt on our land and thought we were addressing it properly but this last year has been a real eye opener,” he says.
In recent years flock numbers have grown from around 200 - 600 ewes and more grazing land has been taken on. The expansion has also involved a change in the type of sheep preferred.
“Our ewes are now predominantly Cheviot crosses on which we use Texel and Beltex rams for the lambs we sell and we put Cheviots to an improved Welsh Ram for our own replacements. Everything is home-bred.”
Historically the farm, on the hills above Knighton, has had quite a few problems with twin lamb disease and Andy has felt fertility could be better too.
“We’ve tried spreading trace elements on the ground with the fertiliser, drenching the stock and relying on lick buckets but it’s only this last year that the effects of the deficiencies combined with the ‘hit and miss’ nature of our previous supplementation strategies have really come to light.”
Two weeks before tupping last October, Andy decided to try sustained release bolus technology.
“I’d heard good things about this thinking, particularly with regard to fertility, and the controlled nature of the trace element release – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – made perfect sense to me.”
A single bolus is given to the sheep orally and is designed to sit harmlessly in the rumen where it slowly erodes delivering measured amounts of Iodine, Selenium and Cobalt for 180 days maintaining optimum levels right through to lambing.
“With the boluses costing just under a pound each, we calculated that if we got just 10 extra lambs, we’d be in the money so made the decision to go for it.
“In the end we got about 120 extra lambs - lambing percentage rose from the 140% of previous years to 160% including 100 untreated hoggs - incidences of twin lamb disease fell from the usual 20 or so to just one and, an unexpected bonus, lambing was much easier due to thicker amniotic fluids.”
In addition, the sheep were in such good condition and doing so well they were able to be kept outside until just two weeks before lambing – instead of the usual four weeks - and ewes were lambing down with a lot more milk with the lambs themselves having much more vigour, Andy says.
“Remember 2012 was a really bad winter and if anything the forage was worse than previous years, so the only thing that had changed was the addition of the 24.7 bolus.
“Interestingly we kept the lick buckets out, but the ewes didn’t really want to touch them and we ended up using just a third of what we normally do.”
All in all, the ability to maintain precise levels of trace elements throughout the breeding cycle has made a huge difference to the fertility and profitability of the farm, he says.
“It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. Even without the extra lambs, it would be well worth doing just because of the better health of the flock.
“Losing 3-4 ewes to twin lamb disease is expensive and we’ve now virtually eliminated it completely in addition to all the other benefits.”