3rd April 2017
Working on the family farm with his father and brother, Howard has made a niche for himself by taking on sole responsibility for the sheep part of the business at Lympsham. Not content just with the day-to-day management of the 320 Lleyn cross ewes and 125 replacements, he has also set up a ‘Levels Lamb’ direct marketing business selling 100% grass-fed Somerset lamb. This is something Howard plans to grow in time, as his initial focus is on building up sheep numbers and improving grassland management through rotational and strip grazing.
Top fact: While there is no shortage of sheep in South West England, Howard says there are not a huge number in his area and he is excited to meet new people through the NSA Ambassador programme. He says: “Sometimes when farming at home, alone a lot of the time, it is easy to feel detached from the wider sheep sector. I’d like to meet new people and make friends and contacts who are likeminded, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.”
De ja vu - the ewes have started lambing and it’s raining. Due date was 25th February and the first lambs fell on the 24th. Three days in, the tally is 15 but I’m expecting things to speed up this next week.
We still have 100 of last year’s lambs to go through and draw from for Sedgemoor market. In hindsight, these lambs should have been sold as stores in the early autumn when prices were good. Last year we did well running them on some winter keep and selling through December and January, but it hasn’t paid so well this winter.
The first ‘solar lambs’ were born a couple of days ago, under the shelter of the solar panels which were installed on the farm this time last year. Three sets of twins have lambed here so far and I have had to do no more than just look through the security fence to check they’re ok so far. Leasing a significant portion of the home holding to a solar developer was a carefully debated decision by the family. We went for it and it has been an interesting project through planning, construction and commissioning and I’m now in the process of learning the best method of shepherding under the panels. It’s been a steep learning curve for me and more so the dogs who find it very exciting! It is working well though, a dual-purpose use of the land, a secure cash flow for the farm and many benefits to the flock.
It was fantastic to meet with a great group of like-minded, enthusiastic people at the first NSA Next Generation Ambassador delivery session this month. We discussed and shared plenty of ideas as a group and I’m really looking forward to the year ahead.
The weather hasn’t been ideal for the start of lambing, especially the 110 twin bearers lambing outdoors. The combination of wet, cold and windy is giving the new-borns a hard start. We will soon have enough space to bring the remaining 70 of that group back to the farm where they’ll be housed at night and turned out in the day - weather dependant.
The solar panels have been a life saver for lambs this year. I’ve been able to turn them out at 24-48hrs old as lambs can shelter from wind and rain under them which has been brilliant. Next year, I shall make sure I pen the panel grazing up earlier so there is plenty of bite for the duration of lambing.
Housing the ewes at night and grazing out in the day system works quite well for us. Triplets and quads, twins and singles are all housed separately and turned out separately from the shed. Singles are kept on tight grazing and fed hay inside. The twins and multiples are grazed on better grass and fed grass and maize silage from the clamp when inside and they all have access to energy and mineral buckets. We don’t feed concentrates pre-lambing and only ewes with triplets or quads have a bit of feed post lambing and before they are turned out, otherwise creep for orphaned lambs is all we buy in.
Following the ewes, I have close to 100 ewe lambs to follow. Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks has seen a number of them abort. It’s hard to know how many for definite, but six have been seen, caught and removed from the others and a couple others have been suspected of the same. A sample sent to Bristol University came back as listeria, although they have only been grazing without any silage. The thought is it has come from the soil, but we’re unsure as to why we haven’t seen it before. It’s disheartening but even the vets said it is just bad luck.
We lambed most of the ewes within three weeks and all went well once the weather settled. I have had a fantastic lambing helper which makes all the difference. Having someone to give and take a bit of banter whilst lambing is much more enjoyable than doing it on your own, especially on the days things aren’t going so well. We soon worked out a bit of a system which meant we could take it in turns to have some down time. It seems to have passed in a blur!
The remaining ewes will run with the first cycle ewe lambs. I didn’t pull the tups from the ewes knowing I’d be lambing the ewe lambs after, so there will be a few tail enders. Running these ewes with the hoggs also helps the first timers get used to being housed and moved in and out of the shed.
The hoggs are due to start on the 23rd April and are looking well. Gladly no more abortions have been seen and they are bagging up nicely. I’m so glad I had them shorn in September. They are tidy, clean and I haven’t had to pull one out of a hedge all winter, a big bonus.
Grass has been growing like crazy down in Somerset through March and April, but this has brought a hard lesson to me. I lost five ewes rearing three to four week old twins in a week which been grazing a PRG and white clover ley put in last July. Another trip up to Bristol University gave a prompt confirmation of hypomagnesaemia, as I suspected. It turns out the general mineral buckets weren’t sufficient, so they now have high mag buckets and I have been putting magnesium chloride flakes in the drinking water. I’ve had no other problems since, other than the ten extra lambs in the orphan pen that need feeding.
Another lesson this month was taking some orphan lambs to a local food festival, sounds strange I know. The lambs drew crowds all afternoon but remained most content and relaxed in their trailer. The aim was to help connect people on a high street to farming, even if only on a local scale, rather than push meat box sales. The lack of connection consumers make with their good was sadly quite apparent, and a lot don’t seem to be interested in changing this. As a farmer who is working hard to produce something to be proud of, the lack of interest from the consumer is quite hard to take.
I’m hoping the rest of the month sees a successful finish to lambing and hopefully some rest is in store.
Following lambing I have managed to have a couple of quieter weeks, one of which I spent at the North Somerset Show. A great one-day event to catch up with friends with a cider in hand. I also spent an evening at the Wester Daily Press Food & Farming Awards, where I joined the table of individuals behind the Eat Food Festivals. It was great to support a fellow NSA Next Generation Ambassador shortlisted in the Young Farmer of the Year award category, a great night had by all.
I’ve been farm sitting in Devon recently, something I really enjoy. It allows me to see a stunning part of the country at the same time as giving someone else a well-earned break. The farm runs a performance recorded flock of Lleyns, which is very interesting to look at in terms of figures to see how they’ve been improving the performance genetics by introducing high index rams.
Back at home, the eldest lambs are just tipping 10 weeks and they are growing well. One of the main groups of twins is on a rotationally set-stocked system at present, where they stay in each field for five to seven days. It’s clean ground and has worked well with the lambs looking bright and growing well.
The second lot of twins are being rotationally grazed on a PRG and white clover ley. There are 85 ewes with twins on a 12-acre field split in to five sections. It’s the first time I have grazed like this and I’m very pleased with how quickly the grass recovers and regrows after grazing. The stocking rate could probably be increased but I haven’t built up the confidence to do so yet.
In not so exciting news, the first flies have struck. The onset of wet weather following a warm dry spell has been perfect conditions for flies so once it dries up again, it’ll be time to give the shearers a call. The weather is perfect for growing grass though and we have it in abundance. Silaging is forecast for next week if the weather is right. We have about 65 acres of Italian ryegrass leys for clamp silage and following that we shall start on the neighbours. They have the forager and front linkage for a buckrake and we have the man power and tractors so it works well to join forces. I’m looking forward to my annual fix of tractor work.
June has come and gone in a flash.
The first draw of lambs were sold on the last day of May at around 11-12wks old. Only ten lambs averaging just over 39kg were drawn from the singles but they were fitter lambs and made 241p/kg. A fortnight later we drew 26 more singles averaging just under 39kg and making 256p/kg.
All our lambs are sold live weight through Sedgemoor market 16 miles away. We aim to get down to market around 6:30am to unload, grade, weigh and pen. Without getting in the deadweight vs liveweight debate, Sedgemoor is convenient for us and the market draws a good number of buyers most weeks. I will always take the chance to show off the pen while they’re being sold, speak to buyers and make sure they’re able to handle and grade the lambs for themselves a few pens ahead of the auctioneer and most importantly, I think it shows pride in one’s stock. Another good thing is having an MLC grader to grade all the lambs as they are unloaded so they can be grouped before they are weighed and penned – I believe Sedgemoor is the only market in the country to still do this.
Around 2,000 new season lambs are being sold through Sedgemoor each Monday and at the moment it’s the thicker lambs meeting the stronger trade. This demand can vary through the season so we select lambs accordingly.
I’ve been trying to get a better idea of growth rates by weighing lambs more regularly this year. Over the last few years, we’ve weighed and handled and marked up lambs that are nearly finished with different colours. This year I think the system has been perfected in its simplicity. Lambs less than 33kg - no mark, 34-35kg - green dot, 36-37kg - red dot, more than 38kg -red dot and tagged. When lambs are weighed again in a fortnight, I can simply refer to the colour mark and assess the weight gain. It’s not as accurate as using EID readers, scales and software and occasionally a few assumptions e. are made but it’s cheap and a simple way of monitoring.
For the first half of June singles were averaging just under 360g/day. I haven’t yet calculated the twins growth rates but the third week in June average weights for the main group were just over 36kg, which from ewes averaging 60-65kg and grass only, I’m very pleased with. I haven’t yet weighed lambs from the ewe lambs but their lambs are handling well, despite being lighter and slower as expected. Just as importantly, the ewe lambs now shearlings were in reasonable condition themselves at shearing.
As well as selling and weighing lambs, I was busy silaging at the start of the month. I’ve been making hay during the heatwave, shearing, fly spraying lambs, helping at NSA South Sheep, training an 11 month kelpie and selling some Levels’ Lamb hogget boxes. A non-sheep related highlight was selling ten two-year-old bulling heifers from the South Devon herd I am involved with to Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons!