The use of plastic jackets on young lambs has proved a good investment at Mains of Thornton, the new organic monitor farm near Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.
The farm, run by the Cooper family, was recently appointed as a monitor farm by Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Organic Producers Association.
“Because of the atrocious weather last February, we decided to put plastic jackets on the young lambs this year,” said Leslie Cooper. “The main priority for the lambs in the first few days after turn-out, when they are at their most vulnerable, is survival. The plastic jackets cost about 15 pence each, and if they saved one lamb’s life, they will have paid for themselves!”
There was concern that the plastic jackets, which are bio-degradable, would cause some mis-mothering but the Coopers found these concerns un-founded.
“When you put your hand under the plastic jacket on a lamb, on a wet, cold day, it’s really warm inside,” explained Kenny Cooper. “And we’re convinced that they’ve helped to cut losses, particularly during the first couple of weeks of February, when it was wet.
“If it’s cold or wet when we lamb the next batch in April, we’ll use them again.”
At the initial monitor farm meeting in mid-January, host farmer Kenny Cooper told the community group that in an effort to identify where in lambs were being lost the ewes had been scanned, to establish if there were any losses between scanning and lambing.
The first batch of 313 ewes, which started lambing on 1st February inside in polytunnels had scanned 176%.
“They actually lambed a higher percentage than they had scanned,” Kenny Cooper told the community group at the recent meeting. “They produced 570 lambs – 182%.”
The Coopers lamb a total of 700 ewes and an additional 340 ewe lambs are put to the tup. The comparatively lucrative prime lamb market of late May/early June persuades them to lamb almost half of the ewes in February, with a later batch starting in April.
Charollais and Highlander (a New Zealand maternal “composite” of Finn, Romney and Texel) tups are used over the early lambers, with the Charollais tups selected for high eight week growth EBVs (Estimated Breeding Values).
The prices for their organic prime lambs in 2010 reveal why the Coopers aim for the early market – on 2nd June they were paid £4.60 per kg dwt. Three weeks later (23rd June) - £3.90 and by mid-July the price was £3.60 – a fall of £1 per deadweight kg in just six weeks, or £20 per head per 20 kg dwt lamb.
With the high, early prices targeted, frustratingly lambing started slowly in February for the Coopers. “Obviously we would like most of the first batch to lamb early in February,” explained Kenny Cooper. “But less than a third of the 313 ewes lambed in the first three weeks, with the remaining two thirds lambing in the last week! Also we were over three weeks into lambing before the first triplets were born.
“We had flushed the ewes, but I suspect we asked them to come into season too soon. Next year we’ll try using a teaser tup in the hope of persuading them to cycle earlier.”
The Coopers run a closed flock, currently selecting replacements on size and appearance.
“It might also pay us in the future to use EID (Electronic Identification) to help identify twin ewe lambs born in the first couple of weeks of lambing, and consider those for replacements, as they will have been born to the earlier cycling, more fertile ewes,” added Kenny Cooper.
The next Monitor Farm meeting is scheduled for 16th June, when the community group will discover how many lambs the Coopers were able to finish and sell when the prices were at their best.
For further details of the Organic Monitor Farm, please contact either of the joint facilitators - Maggie Magee tel 01835 822049 or email@example.com or Deborah Roberts tel 07733 228701 email Deborah.Roberts@sfqc.co.uk
General information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings can be found at www.qmscotland.co.uk