Once again it is that time of year when thoughts turn towards tupping – and by the look of my tups it is a subject that is also high on their list of priorities. Noses are starting to puff up and wrinkle, they are darkening around the eyes and getting rather more pushy with each other. Testosterone is obviously well on the rise, in the tups that is.
Ram preparation, for anyone intending to lamb in March, should be well underway by now. It is a process that should ideally commence some 10 weeks before they go to work, particularly when one considers that spermatogenesis takes about seven weeks, from inception to the sperm maturing; it is the sperm that are being produced now (end of August) that will be going into action at the beginning of October, so getting things wrong at this point in time can have a significant impact on next years lamb crop. The boys need a bit of TLC at this time of year and a bit of feeding doesn’t hurt, even if its only a handful a day just to keep them sweet and get them coming to a trough, providing a good opportunity to observe how things are progressing and grab any ram that may need attention. It also helps put a bit more condition on them before they go to work; some additional quality protein at this time all helps towards quality sperm production.

Ewe preparation doesn’t take quite so long, but it is important to monitor body condition score (BCS) in order to ensure that all ewes (hopefully) are on or about the target BCS 3.5 when they meet the tups. Now is also the time to get other issues sorted regarding feet etc, although the question is “should any real offenders still be in the flock?”

It is also time to address breeding policy; in common with much of the agricultural sector, many sheep producers retain an obsession with chasing performance. For the arable sector it may be yield/ha, while for sheep producers it is often lambing percentage. In reality the key performance indicator of a successful enterprise should be the bottom line; high yields or lambing percentages do not always equate with the latter.

For many years my key performance indicator, in common with many other producers, was lambing percentage; a lambing percentage of 205%+ confers certain bragging rights at the pub. But several years ago a number of factors arose, after a particularly dry summer, that caused me to question this approach. Lamb mortality was in line with national averages, but I considered this too high, similarly with concentrate use, but probably the key factor was ewe condition at weaning and the costs of getting hard working ewes back into appropriate condition for tupping. Additionally I considered ewe flock life, again in line with the national average, to be unacceptable.

By accepting a drop in a lambing percentage of around 10% on average (190 to 195%), I have seen a significant drop in lamb mortality (this season scanned at 194% and 190% weaned including still births), while the approach to concentrate feeding has become more considered and focused around ewe condition and the availability and quality of forages. This includes a more strategic approach to the use of creep feed, tailored to meet the needs of both ewes and lambs. Additionally I have seen an increase in average flock life, with an associated reduction in the level of ewe depreciation.

All of this, along with a determined effort to make more effective use of grass (thwarted, in some seasons by the weather), has resulted in a small drop in terms of lamb output per ewe (lower lambing % accompanied by reduced lamb mortality), more production off grass, even on permanent pasture (albeit improved from time to time by overseeing and stitching in a few herb species), more contented and healthier ewes and a significant reduction in production costs, (feed + veterinary + replacement etc). All of which has contributed to an improved bottom line and less hassle.

There is still a long way to go, but movement is in the correct direction. The focus for the future is to extend the range of forages and the effective grazing season. To this end this autumn I will stitch a bit of rye and vetches into some paddocks to give a bit more of an early bite and contribution towards nitrogen demands. Over-seeding some other paddocks with a legume mix to boost the percentage of clover and legumes in the sward should also help. It would be lovely to have a fully mounted grassland direct drill, something like the Simtech Aitchison; sadly I cannot justify such an investment but relatively easy access to such a bit of kit would be a real plus. Any contractors out there?

Ewe efficiency is another focus; lambing performance is about where it needs to be and for a number of years I have been using Lleyn Gold (the ability to rear 60% plus of ewe weaning weight in lambs by eight weeks) as a significant part of my selection criteria for ewe replacements (one of the advantages of maintaining a closed flock). Now with 80% of the flock at Lleyn Gold I’m looking at body condition scores (BCS) at weaning in relation to Lleyn Gold scores. I am now aiming to select replacement ewe tegs born out of ewes that not only have a Lleyn Gold score of 75%+ but also wean at a BCS above 2.5.

Historically ewes that had a reasonably good BCS at weaning would often be regarded with a degree of suspicion. Producers often regarded them as being lazy, not putting enough into their lambs, but evidence to support their ability to do their lambs well (Lleyn Gold) and still look after themselves relatively well (BCS 2.5 to 3) indicates that they are rather more efficient than their contemporaries. Not at all scientific, but figures like these do provide a useful pointer to further progress, with the additional bonus that they are relatively quick and easy to calculate.

I also want a relatively compact lambing; lambing outside can, if the weather is not ideal, be rather challenging and hard work. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but as I have said previously it is one of those things that one looks forward to but then looks forward, just as eagerly, for it to end. To this end I have, for quite few years now, only left tups in for 21 days, thus selecting for the more fecund and precocious ewes. This has worked well and I get very few empties at scanning. The intention this year is to push them just a little further and leave the Lleyn ram in for one cycle and use the Suffolk as a sweeper. Come next spring it will be fairly obvious if I have just pushed them a little too far.

Moves towards greater ewe efficiency coupled with more extensive (not in the traditional sense of the word) and efficient use of grass and forages together with reduced reliance on concentrate feeds should both reduce costs of production and contribute to a more sustainable production system; the latter achieved, in theory anyway, by reducing greenhouse gasses caused by concentrate feeding, in particular methane emissions, plus enabling the build up of soil organic matter, thus sequestering CO2.

In addition, a move towards a greater variety of species in swards should help to address some of the issues associated with the hot dry summers of recent years. Mixed species with a greater range of rooting depths should help to provide access to moisture beyond the reach of many of the more common grass varieties; the more abundant root mass also helps build soil organic matter and contributes to greater drought tolerance (1% organic matter will hold the equivalent of 1inch (25mm) of rainfall).

Enhanced production off grass presents our customers with a greener image of lamb production; add to this the contribution made to reducing the potential impact of sheep production on climate change and the social benefits are quite significant.

To come back to the point about chasing performance, it may seem counter intuitive, but reducing levels of performance may often result in an improved bottom line, particularly when using a medium sized, prolific and efficient ewe; cost savings, both direct and indirect, simply need to be of a greater magnitude than the revenue forgone.