Sunday, January 19, 2020

P & J Green: Gateway to profit

June 4, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Attention to detail is helping sheep producer Patrick Green optimise margins. Simon Wragg reports.

Identifying lambs under-achieving on growth rate using Electronic Identification (EID) and auto-shedding equipment is allowing Patrick Green to target treatments and cut costs across a one-man 1300-ewe enterprise at Church Farm, Harpole, Northamptonshire.

Having lambed indoors in March, around 18 groups of ewes and lambs are spread across the 57ha (140ac) undulating farm and a number of grass lets covering a further 105ha (260ac) within a 15-mile radius.

“I begin marketing lambs later this month with the aim of drafting half of the groups each week,” he explains.

This is only possible as a one-man operation by using a team of up to four working dogs to gather sheep into a mobile handling raceway fitted with a recently purchased EID reader and auto-shedding gate. “It’s now an essential part of the operation,” he says of the £11,000 additions.

The impetus to monitor lamb growth rate is two-fold. Firstly, lambs not achieving 250g/head/day by eight weeks old (around early June) may need worming or have a poorly performing ewe as their dam. Both will trigger further investigation and influence the allocation of better quality grazing.

“Secondly, having moved away from lambing a portion of the flock in January for the Easter market due to falling margins, I’ve now joined a dedicated producer group supplying Tesco. An element of the contract is the need to accurately forecast numbers to be sent to the processing abattoir week-by-week.”

Monitoring progress

Lamb growth is benchmarked to achieve 300g/day as an average with finished stock being sold at between 16-21kg deadweight. As a guide production costs need to be under £4.50/kg deadweight to achieve a decent margin, he suggests.

To enable monitoring, all new-born lambs are given an EID ear tag costing around 59p excluding VAT. This allow lambs to be linked back to their ewe so both generations are monitored for performance.

“I don’t get bogged down in data – I only look at what I need to know and spend most of my time concentrating on husbandry tasks and being a good sheep farmer,” he says.

As many lambs as possible are finished off grass alone through to autumn reducing the use of costly bagged feed. Later finishing lambs will be moved on to forage rape and turnips grown at Church Farm – with most of the grazing lets having to be vacated over winter.

Alternatively, they are grazed on red/white clover aftermaths having been cleared of big bale silage – the ewe flock’s winter feed – in late spring.

Good flock health is another core objective and backed up with support from Rutland Vets. “I am a believer that you should use vaccines, antibiotics and wormers where they’re effective. But that doesn’t mean blanket drenching or the alike.”

Farm staff

With labour (particularly at lambing time when three staff are on hand to help) and variable costs within Mr Green’s control, he’s focusing on trying to contain these out-going compared to fixed costs such as rents.

“You have to be pro-active and look at change to stay efficient. I’m never going to be the lowest cost producer as I lamb indoors. Perhaps I may have to look at changing that and the breeds within the flock,” he suggests.

Lambs ready for marketing are brought back to Church Farm for collection by a dedicated haulier. Abattoir data on lamb carcase weights and grades are fed into Shearwell computer software allowing lifetime performance to be monitored.

Producers within the retailer group are paid a graduated contract price for lambs across the season based on actual costs of production for around 200 nominated suppliers, he explains. This may change in the future taking greater account of the availability of finished lamb between July and August.

Other income

With further pressure on prices inevitable, changes to the dedicated sheep farm set up are likely. Currently the flock includes 300 Mules which produce replacements and around 200 Mule X New Zealand Suffolk ewe lambs are retained each year. Mature ewes (five years and older weighing 85kg typically) need more feed for maintenance so a younger flock may be more cost effective.

“While this farm lends itself to sheep farming there may come a time when I have to release some rented ground due to development, work the ground harder here and seek other income.”

A stone barn on the yard which could be converted to residential, for example, and there is space to host a range of activities. But with the ending of a recent ELS environmental scheme, it remains to be seen what lies ahead.

“If we are to be paid on environmental improvement then perhaps splitting fields with new hedges will allow an opportunity to create a more comprehensive rotation (of stock) and help keep young lambs away from footpaths.

“Whatever the future holds, not being on top of costs could see sheep farmers working for no return whatsoever,” he concludes.

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