Sunday, November 19, 2017

Successful sheep farmer ‘leaves nothing to chance’

August 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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Data analysis is helping optimise business performance for Worcestershire sheep producer Sam Jones. Simon Wragg reports.

Regular monitoring of liveweight gain is key to the post weaning management of 1200 North Country Mules and the annual lamb crop at E Jones & Son’s Brook House Farm, Ham Green, near Redditch, Worcestershire.

Monitoring both lamb growth rate and ewe weight gain (the latter as an indicator of recovery in body condition – important for ewe lambs in particular) is allowing Sam Jones to prioritise grazing accordingly at the 200ha (500ac) family-run unit.

“I’ve turned things on their head,” he says. Use of electronic identification coupled to an automated weigh scale and shedding gate means each animal can be monitored and managed on an individual basis without an onerous demand on labour.

He explains: “Ewe lambs go to the tup rather than being held back until they’re yearlings. Once weaned they’ll typically stand still at 65-70kg liveweight for a month, according to data gathered from the weigher.

“Offering a home-mix coarse ration while at grass through three-in-one feeders increases body weigh by around 4kg over the next two months, and by 8kg by the time a ewe lamb goes back to the tup as a yearling. This has increased scanning (pregnancy) percentage by 12%.”

Digital weigher

Ewe lambs, yearlings and older ewes are run through the digital weigher every three weeks to monitor changes in bodyweight. Under-performers are separated automatically using the shedding gate for closer inspection. “We were fortunate to receive RDPE grant funding to help purchase equipment.”

Weaned lambs are also monitored by weight. Wethers are sold prime to local processor Farmers Fresh from July to December. Ewe lambs are reared to be sold as replacements direct off farm. “Wethers over 38kg live weight will go out to grass and be offered a 16% coarse mix made up of home-grown barley and oats mixed with a bought-in protein pellet.”

Lambs under 38kg will be allocated better quality grazing with the aim of achieving 250g daily liveweight gain. This is monitored by regular weighing. “It is possible to run a batch of 500 through the raceway and 75% will go through the weigher without intervention. The saving in labour alone is significant.”

Other technologies have been used to make gains elsewhere. Mapping to assess and manage soil pH and nutrients – the latter combined with variable rate applications of fertiliser – has increased grass production by an estimated 15%, he suggests. “Nothing is left to chance any more.”

Software specialist

“Fortunately, my brother, Ian, is a GPS software specialist. In time we hope to identify which fields are better suited to finishing lambs.”

As an aside, using data gathered from different technologies sees feed wheat achieve 3.87t/acre – not bad for sheep farmers, he reflects. All feed barley and oats are used on-farm in sheep rations. Wheat is sold off-farm avoiding an associated concern over risk of acidosis.

The aim is to get all breeding females rising in body condition score to 3.5 by early October before being put to Texel terminal sires purchased from Worcester market or the Northants-based Slapton flock. “Tups are chosen more on EBV figures now than before; I still prefer to buy direct from the breeder as tups don’t tend to sink once on farm.”

Teaser rams are used to tighten the tupping period to good effect. This is timed to coincide with veterinary university holiday dates for the following spring when students are recruited to assist with lambing.

After scanning to assess which females are carrying single, twin and triplets, groups will be split by bodyweight and allocated grazing accordingly.

Data capture

“We’re also using data captured by the weigher to monitor the performance of replacements (North Country and Dalesbred Mules) purchased through Bentham market back to their original flocks.” This may influence purchasing decisions in future, he adds.

Having had up to 2000 ewes on-farm in the past when headage payments drove income from subsidy payments, today’s economic climate dictates that expansion can only be considered if it has a positive impact on profitability.

“Having used SFP income to capitalise investment in new equipment we are in a position to look at increasing flock size by adding 50 ewes at a time and assess the impact of the extra workload on profitability.”

The weight scales and shedder have reduced labour considerably (the farm has no full-time and one part-time staff); it should be on most producer’s wish list, he suggests.

Likewise, the purchase of a sheep jetter to administer drenches for the control of maggots has reduced associated annual costs by an estimated £4500, he explains.  “It’s all about making a number of small gains which have a bigger impact on overall profitability.”

The sheep enterprise records a lambing percentage of 208% with a selling percentage of 188% in 2016; a good result, he suggests. “I believe 190% is achievable.”

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