Four of the six focus farms have sheep enterprises and since the beginning of the programme, each farm has altered its lambing date slightly.

There are a few reasons for this, but it all comes back to one common aim – to sell more lambs every year.

Lambing occurs in spring. However, depending on where you are in the country, spring can start anytime from mid-February to mid-May.

Matching your lambing date with the typical onset of grass growth will have a massive impact on both the number of lambs you produce and the overall cost of production.

Ewes and lambs at Biffens at Arnage.

The changes in lambing date on the focus farms have been relatively small – a fortnight in most cases – with one farm moving lambing back a whole month. Initially, some of the farms were somewhat reluctant to delay lambing.

Some were aiming for the high lamb price often seen in early to mid-June, while all felt that delaying lambing would choke up the back end of the year with lambs still in the system competing for grass with ewes at breeding time. However, what we are finding is the exact opposite.

Feed costs

If there is not sufficient grass available at lambing time, it leads to increased feed costs.

Each year, we benchmark the focus farms for each enterprise. The majority of purchased feed going into these systems occurs pre- and post-lambing.

By better matching lambing date to grass growth, we have seen purchased feed/ewe decrease from almost £25/ewe to £16.60/ewe last year – a saving of over £8/ewe.

High lamb price

The general trend with lamb price in Scotland sees it peak at some stage in May/early June and steadily decrease throughout July, August and September as greater numbers of lambs come to the point of slaughter.

Chasing this high-priced lamb in early June is fine if you are in an area suited to lambing in mid- to late-February. For the majority of the focus farms, this is not a viable option.

The Biffens lamb everything outdoors.

Aiming your entire system for a high price point in the market (which may or may not be there) that only 20% of your lambs will be fit for drafting for does not make sense.

If grass is not growing, it also means the weather conditions are not favourable for newborn lambs.

This leads to higher losses at lambing time of both lambs and ewes due to nutritional stresses, as well as more instances of mastitis leading to increased culling rates in the flock.

Clogging up the system

Despite fears of having more lambs in the back end of the year due to a delayed lambing date, what the focus farms are seeing is more lambs being sold off grass alone each year.

This is partly due to the later lambing date, as well as more planned grazing rotations, as ewes have sufficient grass under their heads to increase milk yield and drive growth rates in lambs.

Lambing early can cause a reduction in growth in lambs and increase days to slaughter if nutrition supplementation is not sufficient.

There are 200 days from mid-April until 1 November. Therefore, there is little excuse for any lamb born in mid-April to still be on farm by this date, barring a hill system.

Anything that is will have had an average liveweight gain of less than 210g/day. If the same lamb is still on farm at the turn of the year, it will have had a liveweight gain of less than 170g/day.

The target for the focus farms is to achieve a 30kg weaning weight (21kg for hill flocks) at 12 weeks of age – ie, an average liveweight gain from birth to weaning of over 290g/day.

Lambing date example

Table 1 outlines three farm scenarios – the first farmer is lambing in mid-February about three weeks before the typical onset of grass growth for their farm. The second farmer lambs down at the onset of grass growth.

Each farmer puts 100 ewes to the tup, and scans at 190%. Therefore the potential of both flocks is the same at the point of scanning.

However, farmer one has a higher replacement cost due to a higher loss of ewes in late pregnancy and more instances of mastitis with an earlier lambing date.

Cull values and replacement ewe cost are the same for each, at £80 and £140 respectively.

Due to lambing in more favourable conditions, farmer two has a higher weaning percentage, increasing from 130% to 160%.

Farmer one is drafting 20% of lambs in early June receiving £110/hd, while the remaining 80% of lambs sell for £85/hd, giving an overall average sale price of £91/hd.

This leaves the gross margin (GM) at £54/ewe in this system.

Farmer two has been calculated back the way to achieve the same GM as farmer one of £54/ewe.

However, due to having more lambs to sell and lower input costs due to making better use of grass, Farmer two can afford to take an average lamb price of just £63/lamb – some £28/lamb less than farmer one.

Farmer three’s performance mirrors that of farmer two.

However, it shows the potential GM/ewe with an average sale price of £80/lamb – similar to the average price received by the focus farmers last year. This sees GM increase by £28 to £82/ewe.

Lambing on the focus farms is progressing nicely this year. The weather, while being changeable, has been much better than last spring, and the kinder winter sees ewes in much better condition in the run-up to lambing.

There is much more grass around this lambing time and managing ewe body condition has been difficult on some farms as ewes are extremely fit.

Concentrate supplementation levels have been reduced accordingly.

Those lambing indoors have managed to hold up ewes and lambs for 24 to 48 hours when necessary, getting stock out as weather conditons allowed.

The focus now is getting ewes and lambs on to a good grazing rotation to maximise lamb growth. All four farms will rotationally graze ewes and lambs this year, with many farms increasing the number of paddocks per group from four to six to give them more flexibility during periods of high grass growth.

Grazing ground was fertilised on most farms in early- to mid-March and the farmers are now getting stock onto the rotation in sufficient time as to not let paddocks at the end of the rotation get out of control.