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Future proofing a Cornish sheep enterprise

2020, Aberfield SR, Abermax, Highlander, Primera

with thanks to James Mutton, Bodmin

James Mutton is future proofing his sheep enterprise; his flock net margins have improved by 20% by introducing a labour saving, easy care, outdoor lambing system featuring 900 Highlander ewes at Burlerrow Farm, St. Mabyn, Bodmin.

“Our objective is to develop a more extensive sheep enterprise and whilst we’re achieving that goal, we are also enhancing the flock’s efficiency and making considerable improvements to its overall performance,” he explains.

“Overall, we are achieving an average 10% more lambs reared. Last season the Highlander ewes scanned at 194%, the Aberfield SR cross Highlanders at 192% and ewe lambs at 130%, whilst they reared 176% 172% and 112% respectively. 

“Furthermore, 50% of the lambs are finished to 19kg target weight off grass and red clover rich organic swards between 16 and 24 weeks of age, that’s four to six weeks faster than previously. The remainder are held back and introduced to stubble turnips / forage rape and sold throughout the winter months on a Waitrose organic supply contract. All lambs finish on pure forage diets; no concentrate.” 

James spent five years grading up his Lleyn cross Poll Dorset cross ewes to pure Highlander status – genetics he says he choose which had been bred in New Zealand specifically for extensive systems. Equally important, those ewes were bred from performance recorded stock. 

“Whilst we are retaining the ewe lambs as replacements as we work towards a closed Highlander flock, our latest decision was to introduce more hybrid vigour and cross with the Aberfield SR maternal sire. And the result: lambs with more frame and better confirmation, ultimately resulting in a heavier, higher value carcass, whilst breeding a ewe which has all the desired maternal traits and that can maintain body condition throughout the year. We have also swapped a traditional terminal sire for the Abermax together with the New Zealand bred Primera meat sire on our ewe lambs for easier lambing,” James explains. 

“The Highlander ewes are maturing at 60kg to 70kg so we’ve been able to increase stocking rate from an average 6.5 to eight ewes and lambs per acre, and we’ve found both the Abermax and Primera have great ram power – we’re turning them out at a ratio of 1:90.”

Swapping traditional February indoor lambing to outdoors in April has introduced the biggest cost savings for James. “We are saving £10,000 on feed alone, whilst we’ve been able to cut labour from three people to just myself for most of the year, with extra help mainly at lambing. The Highlander has been selected in New Zealand for unassisted lambing with a smaller head and narrower shoulders, consequently, contact at lambing is very minimal and the new born lambs are very vigorous. The ewes are also demonstrating great maternal instinct, they have a natural ability to keep their lambs together and they have plenty of milk.

“We’ve successfully lambed both singles and twin bearing ewes outdoors, but this year was the first we chose to lamb the majority of our triplets outside and the lambs thrived. It’s something I’ll be doing again next year – lambing outdoors on good quality grass without any concentrate.

“The Highlander ewes are also proving to be very good grazing sheep, they can maintain condition from less forage and they don’t require flushing, and that’s a benefit which has been further enhanced by introducing the Aberfield SR.”  

Improving grazing management by introducing a rotational system is amongst James’ next challenges in his quest to further step up flock efficiency. Burlerrow Farm has also entered a diverse Countryside Stewardship Scheme which is scheduled to further increase our enterprise margins, he says adding: “We have made huge strides in a relatively short period of time by changing the flock’s entire genetics, however we believe there is considerably more to achieve as we build resilience in to the enterprise to enable it to become increasingly sustainable.”

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