1 February 2022
Ioan Jones is an experienced third-generation upland sheep farmer who farms with his wife Susan and son Aled at Dolyfelin near Builth Wells. The family realised that the flock of more than 800 Lleyn and Texel/Lleyn-cross ewes, plus 200 home-bred ewe lambs, were not necessarily reaching the performance levels they expected, particularly during and immediately after lambing.
With plans to increase the stocking rate at Dolyfelin to 1,000 – and with Aled wanting to also see improvements at his own smallholding, where he currently keeps 90 ewes – they were both determined to ensure that they were supplying the flock with the exact trace elements they needed before buying in more sheep.
In 2021, Ioan joined a newly established Breconshire Sheep Discussion Group, run by Farming Connect. A number of farmers in the group found they were experiencing similar problems in terms of below-ideal scanning levels. Some had unacceptably high incidences of prolapses and lameness, and all were uncertain as to whether there was something lacking in the mineral supplies to the flocks.
Deciding to take a holistic approach to identify the causes and redress the balance, Ioan joined forces with two other farmers from the group. Together, they submitted a group application for technical advice on livestock management and performance through the Farming Connect Advisory Service – which entitled each of them to a fully-funded audit of all minerals supplied to the flock.
“We live quite close to each other, with the same terrain and weather conditions, and because we were regularly speaking to each other through the discussion group, we quickly realised we were all dealing with similar issues.
“We all acknowledged that despite our best efforts, something wasn’t quite right, so were determined to find out exactly what we could do to improve stock performance, keep our stock in peak condition and our profit levels on track,” said Ioan.
Through the Advisory Service, specialist veterinarian Dr Fiona Lovatt of Flock Health Ltd undertook a ‘whole-farm’ audit (also known as ‘trace element testing’) at each of the three farms. This involved analysing water, forage and grass samples, as well as all flock inputs, such as feed, supplements, buckets, licks, drenches and boluses.
Dr Lovatt and her team collated specific flock information and considered all the ratios between key minerals. They then compared what was supplied with the requirements of both ewes and lambs through the year, before providing each of the farmers with a detailed report and recommendations for each of the flocks and farms.
The audit at Dolyfelin found that there was no real concern with the supply of the majority of macrominerals. However, at certain times of the year, there were some issues with the supply of copper, selenium, cobalt, iodine and zinc – particularly when the sheep were grazing on grass alone. A shortfall during the summer grazing period meant that the ewes were potentially less resilient to fighting disease than they would be if their mineral supply was correct.
The report recommended a number of actions, including the need to gather more information with respect to copper supply. As a result, it recommended that liver samples (at slaughter or from deadstock) should be submitted for analysis of actual copper levels in the sheep.
Due to the high levels of potassium, salt licks were recommended for the ewes, as well as close monitoring for cases of staggers, which could necessitate the administration of magnesium buckets. This directly tallied with what Ioan had observed in the previous lambing season, and it was reassuring for the audit to identify the reason for the increased number of cases of staggers.
Although there was almost an over-supply of minerals supplied in the diet over winter, it was suggested that the bolus administration to the ewes should be moved to earlier in the summer. This would then ensure sufficient supply of essential trace elements throughout the grazing period.
Dr Lovatt also discussed the pros and cons of the myriad of different products, comparing the various options available for how and when to consider supplementing lambs.
“On farms where there is sufficient mineral in the grazing, then there is no need to supplement.
“However, where there are shortages in the grazing and no creep fed, it is important to consider something that covers the whole duration of the grazing season.
“There are so many products on the market, and many provide very much higher levels than is necessary – though maybe not for the duration that we often need.
“A drench, for example, will only supply sufficient cobalt, iodine or zinc for a couple of weeks, though selenium levels would stay sufficient for about six weeks,” said Dr Lovatt.
Ioan and Aled said that the trace element analysis confirmed why they had observed staggers at previous lambings. However, they now had an explanation for this, and an action plan enabling them to implement new regimes.
“It’s still early days, but we are already starting to see better outcomes for the ewes, which augurs well for lambing this spring.
“Farmers can never stop learning, and I would advise all farmers to seek professional advice through Farming Connect. Don’t carry on doing what you’ve always done – if you think it’s not working, it probably isn’t!
“I’m now spending my money and time in a far more targeted way. The flock at Dolyfelin is going from strength to strength again, and all these improvements are also helping reduce the carbon footprint of the farm.”
Farming Connect is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra Wales and funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.