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Boosting flock performance

November 19, 2020

This has been a very good year for sheep farmers with prices well ahead of previous years. However with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, it is difficult to predict what the future might hold. Brian Hanthorn Beef and Sheep adviser from College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), Dungannon, suggests that sheep farmers should focus on factors they can change which have the biggest influence on profitability within their own flock. Mr Hanthorn commented, “When examining sheep CAFRE benchmarking results it is clear, that prolificacy is a massive driver of profitability”.

Lifting prolificacy from 1.5 to 1.75 lamb sold per ewe with current lamb prices is worth approximately £23 extra per ewe. A good level of prolificacy in March lambing lowland flocks is around 1.75 lambs sold per ewe put to the ram. Trying to achieve above this is possible, however very specific ewe nutrition is essential and rearing orphan lambs can be time consuming and expensive.  “Breeding your own prolific females using maternal sires, is an excellent method of boosting flock performance at a reduced cost with lower disease risk” he added. It also provides the farmer with some control over ewe mature size which influences stocking rate. Keeping good records, either paper or electronic, is essential to get a true picture of the flock’s overall prolificacy and to identify the best ewes for breeding replacements. It is an ideal time now to count up how many ewes went to the ram this autumn and weigh a selection of ewes to determine mature size. This can be the base to help calculate physical data and get an insight flock performance later on when ewes have been scanned and subsequently lamb.

Lamb numbers is a key driver of profitability within sheep enterprises

CAFRE Benchmarking shows that a top 25% sheep farmer in benchmarking returned a net Margin £41 higher than an average farmer. Stocking rate, or the number of ewes carried per hectare, is an important figure when trying to obtain an income from sheep. A high stocking rate on a dry lowland farm is around 14-15 ewes per hectare however, this can only be achieved with moderate sized ewes and where good grassland production and utilisation methods are employed. Winter grazing is also beneficial coupled with good sheep housing to achieving a high stocking rate.  Mr Hanthorn stated, “There are still many lowland sheep farmers unaware of the weight of their ewes and how heavy they are”. He added, “Keeping a 90-95 kg ewe to produce a 21 kg carcase lamb is inefficient”.  A moderate sized ewe at 65-70 kg mature weight would enable sheep farmers to carry over 20% more ewes when compared to much larger 90-95kg ewes.

A relatively new target figure adopted within the CAFRE sheep flocks is a ewe efficiency, which measures the kg of lamb weaned compared to the kg of ewe weight at mating. The target is to achieve a figure of 0.8 or above, which would be delivered by a 70 kg ewe weaning 56 kg of lambs, or 1.75 lambs at 32kg. The figure combines prolificacy and growth rate and encourages a moderate sized ewe making the target is easier to achieve. It is important that this calculation is carried out over the whole flock and not on an individual ewe basis.

There is evidence from CAFRE benchmarking indicating excessive use of concentrates in both ewes and lambs on some farms. Hanthorn adds, “A combined figure (ewe and lamb concentrate) of over £30 per ewe is apparent in some instances. However, the most efficient flocks have a total concentrate usage of £8-10 per ewe”. These flocks are really focused on producing really good quality leafy grass and managing the grazing and utilisation very carefully. Grazing practices such as forward creep grazing are very efficient at promoting better lamb growth rate and reducing cost. Meal feeding to lambs can be in introduced in August to finish them. Trough feeding is also more beneficial where applicable as all lambs can feed at one time and reduces the amount per day to 0.5 kg rather than ad lib.

Paying attention to detail in all aspects of the production cycle, having clear and realistic targets, measuring performance regularly against these targets and learning from peers within the Business Development Groups will all contribute to improved margins on a well managed sheep unit.