As if growing his enterprise from a standing start to 1700 ewes on rented land with eight different landlords wasn’t enough of a challenge, Nottinghamshire producer Philip Weaver now plans to lamb his whole flock outside.
“It’s a lifestyle decision as much as anything,” he explains.
“Over recent years we’ve been tied up with lambing pretty much from the end of February to the end of May and when you start looking at the costs involved in indoor lambing as well all the hassle involved, you do start to wonder if there’s a better way.”
Although acknowledging there is a risk attached with ewes spread in various locations in a 5-10 mile radius around the business’s base at Knapthorpe near Newark, experiences of lambing 600 ewes safely outdoors in the atrocious conditions of last Winter and Spring have given him real encouragement.
In fact, ewes lambing outdoors achieved lambing percentages around 20% higher than those indoors with less disease problems and all from just available grazing and by-product feeds supported by a Cobalt, Iodine and Selenium trace element bolus.
“Get the management right and I’m convinced sheep can be healthier, produce stronger lambs and have less problems if they lamb outside,” Philip says.
“Many of the problems only arise when we start to interfere.”
Based on the successful formula of last year, ewes will be tupped mid November on grass or stubble turnips with a target lambing date of 10th April.
The ewes will then stay out all winter on arable land before being moved to their Summer grazing in late February where they will then stay with no supplementary feeding at all.
“We’ve found if we move the lambing back a month we avoid a lot of the potential problems with Schmallenberg and other diseases plus the sheep just seem a lot happier this way.”
Although there are no specific trace element problems known on any of the land used, ensuring all ewes have adequate levels of key trace elements at all times throughout the breeding cycle is a critical part of the system, he says.
“We’ve moved away from licks and drenches – you never know what the animals are getting – and have been looking to ensure all ewes get the right levels of key trace elements to maximise fertility.”
All the outdoor lambing ewes were treated with Agrimin’s new 24.7 boluses 3-4 weeks before tupping last year and all ewes will be treated this year.
“I’m not one to leave things to chance especially when the ewes could be under greater stress from the weather and particularly when they won’t be getting any cake.
“But last year we had less barren ewes, the sheep were fitter despite being on very poor grazing and I reckon we saw a 15 - 20% improvement in lambing percentage overall.
“For a pound a bolus I reckon that’s pretty good going, particularly when you can spend £1000 very easily on bagged minerals and not know which, if any, animals are getting enough.
“Our outdoor Mules in particular had a noticeably tighter lambing pattern than previous years and we had a lot less incidences of twin lamb disease.”
The plan is that ewes with singles and triplets will still be brought in to lamb as these are usually where the problems occur and all fields will be visited at least twice a day.
“We have a wide variety of breeds on the farm – Mules, Suffolk crosses, Flynns and 200 Pedigree Texel ewes – and you really see the differences in the breeds when you lamb outdoors.
“The Mules are great and will just sit with their lambs whilst the Suffolks are more interested in heading off and trying to find food. The Swaledale in the Mule makes it the perfect animal for outdoor lambing.”