Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Improving the lifetime performance of ewes

By Amey Brassington, Animal Health and Welfare Scientist at AHDB

A research project to develop best practice for managing replacement ewes and understand the impact of the rearing phase on a ewe’s lifetime performance, has now reached its third year. The AHDB Beef & Lamb-funded project, Challenge Sheep, is set to take seven years in total, with 11 farmers committed to recording data for the duration of the project.

Covering both sheep bred as ewe lambs, and as shearlings, the project is tracking 7,000 replacements from a range of English sheep farms up and down the country who are monitoring data via electronic identification (EID) – weights, body condition score, lambing data and lamb performance.

While the project is a way off seeing end results, the Challenge Sheep farmers have already identified fundamental outcomes from the data, which they are using to implement changes in their management to improve overall flock performance. At a recent project meeting, the participating farmers were asked to identify what they considered to be key intervention points for ewe lambs and shearlings.

Areas identified by Challenge Sheep Farmers as key actions to take at crucial intervention points:

1.     Identifying and managing thin ewes
2.     Every breeding ewe must be over 60% mature liveweight at tupping
3.     Managing young ewes in separate groups until at least their first lambing
4.     Selecting ewe replacements based on genetics and health status
5.     Don’t be shy of culling ewes for poor performance at any stage

Identifying and managing thin ewes

Findings from the project show that regular body condition scoring (BCS) and accurately weighing ewes throughout the year, especially at tupping, scanning, lambing, eight-weeks post lambing and at weaning, can help quickly identify thin ewes enabling management to be adjusted accordingly. In particular, dietary inadequacies at these key timepoints can be realised and addressed. Achieving target BCS at key stages of the production cycle will improve ewe fertility and productivity as well as lamb survival and growth rates from birth to weaning.

Every breeding ewe must be over 60% mature liveweight at tupping

Research shows that thin ewes are generally less fertile than those at target BCS and weight. In addition, ewe lambs are generally less fertile than mature ewes. It is therefore essential that ewe lambs reach at least 60% of their target mature bodyweight by tupping (even if not breeding until the following year) to improve chances of conception and to enable their lamb’s nutritional requirements to be met during development. Weight and BCS of ewe lambs should also be monitored post-tupping to ensure they continue to grow as expected.

It is essential that worm control is also considered in the management of thin ewes, alongside nutrition. Faecal egg counts (FECs) can help determine the need to treat and can be used when reviewing animal health plans with the farm’s vet.

Managing young ewes separately

It is commonly known that a ewe’s requirements for energy and protein varies significantly depending on age, stage of the production cycle, BCS and litter size. However, the Challenge Sheep farmers have identified that it is therefore beneficial to manage shearlings as a separate group to ewe lambs throughout the lambing season, even if they are lambing for the first time. Additionally, shearlings should be managed separately from mature ewes right up until their second lambing. Post-scanning, these age groups can be subdivided further by litter size so that feeding can be tailored to the number of lambs they are carrying. Particular attention needs to be given to young ewe nutrition, including shearlings, with priority given to those bearing twins.

Selecting ewe replacements based on genetics and health status

Amey Brassington, Animal Health and Welfare Scientist who is the technical lead on the Challenge Sheep project explains: “Ewe selection based on genetics and health status can vastly improve the performance and profitability of your flock. Maternal breeding strategies for replacement ewes are complex, and a breeding ewe’s ideal genetic makeup will depend on multiple traits, including, but not exclusively, fertility, number of lambs born, lambing ease, maternal behaviour, maternal ability, as well as temperament and disease resistance. Selective breeding can improve many of these traits by exploiting within-breed differences.

“Genetic improvement by selective breeding has a permanent effect on the ewe’s (and the lamb’s) lifetime performance and improvements can continue to be made as long as there is genetic variation.
The main causes of ewe death should be included in the farm’s health plan, with monitoring points and appropriate treatments or activity listed with suggested timings, e.g. vaccination programme or
BCS assessment. This will help when selecting replacements. Do not compromise on health status – your flocks health status is only as good as the worst replacements you purchase.”

Culling poor performing ewes

Studies have shown that on average, flocks replace 20–25% of their ewes every year, depending on their culling policy and ewe mortality. Underperforming ewes consume feed, take up space, and require additional labour, while generating less profit than their counterparts.

The Challenge Sheep farmers have proved that consistently using data to identify and remove underperforming ewes from the flock is one way to improve overall performance and help make sheep production more profitable, sustainable and viable.

Reasons to cull include:

                      Poor performance – barren/unproductive, poor body condition, poor mothering ability
                      Structural integrity – too old or broken-mouthed, poor teat conformation
                      Disease – abortion, mastitis, lameness, prolapse

It is worth interrogating culling records to see if trends are developing or if there are common causes that could be avoided.

Monday, 30 March 2020

COVID-19: our priority is helping to support you in getting food on tables

From Will Jackson, Beef & Lamb Sector Strategy Director

The current situation with the spread of COVID_ 19 around the globe and the measures in place to slow its spread are unprecedented. They have filtered into every aspect of our lives. At AHDB, we are adapting the way we work and listening to what producers and processors need to ensure we channel resources to where they are most needed.

We are, quite obviously, unable to run events at the moment so all have been postponed until at least June 30. However, as many as possible we are trying to take online and offer as webinars to continue our knowledge exchange work. You can find out the latest information on our events pages.

A dedicated coronavirus/COVID-19 section of the AHDB website has been created. This pulls together FAQs, latest information and links to relevant resources, as well as links to latest external stakeholder advice. It also signposts some of the latest information and analysis from our market intelligence teams to aid business decisions which need to be made during the challenges we currently face.

I would definitely encourage a two-way conversation on what can help you most at all times, but perhaps now more than ever. This will certainly help shape our activity and how we direct resources. However, we must always ensure that this limited resource is being directed in a way that gives best value and is in line with what people want.

Our priority currently is on helping producers and processors with day-to-day business. There is a national emergency and doing all we can to support those getting food to shelves in-store is where our focus is. This remains an evolving issue and we are reviewing daily what we are doing and where resource is focused.

We are supporting consumers by re-purposing and highlighting again existing resources, in particular around things like cooking on a budget and batch cooking. These are being highlighted through our consumer social media channels on Facebook and Instagram @simplybeefandlamb

To support the network of farm shops, butchery and food businesses working round the clock to make sure their customers and local communities get the food they need, we are producing free packs of pork, beef and lamb recipe cards that can be accessed along with a suite of free social media graphics online .

Our work goes on despite the current difficulties and we will continue all we can do to support you and your business. Our priority at this time needs to be on those actions that help us to help you get food to the table for families across the UK.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Great beef begins at home

From Will Jackson, Beef & Lamb Sector Strategy Director

As an industry we’ve been bombarded with negative messaging recently regarding the sustainability of livestock and the perceived impact it is having on the environment.

Yes, I do believe that globally the industry needs to make changes, but here in the UK we have some of the most climate-friendly and sustainable methods in the world. 

The picture that’s being painted of our industry doesn’t give credit to the hard work our farmers have put in to enhancing their landscapes. 

What are the facts?

To start with let’s get the figures correct – the latest Committee on Climate Change figures show that UK agriculture is responsible for 9% of total UK emissions, with cattle and sheep responsible for just 3%. That’s very different to global production figures.

And that doesn’t take into account the fact that the majority of sheep and beef cows are managed on grassland, which absorbs carbon and locks it in the soil. Or that more than 60% of agricultural land in the UK is currently used for livestock, and a lot of this would be taken out of food production if it wasn’t grazed.

British farmers have never been more environmentally proactive. In recent years, they have planted 19,000 hectares of pollen plants and wildflowers, and planted or restored 280,000km of farmland hedgerows and ditches, creating habitats for our native wildlife. 

When it comes to tackling greenhouse gases, farmers are also taking action. Almost 40% of farmers are already rolling out innovative measures like using renewable energies by installing solar panels, erecting wind turbines, upgrading to more efficient machinery and modernising farming practices. A further 20% have said they will roll out climate-friendly initiatives within the next two years.

Would cutting out meat benefit the environment?

Our unique climate is suited to livestock, with rainfall making up over 99% of water needed to breed cows and sheep. And with so much land less suitable for other crops, it would be taken out of food production if not used by livestock. How would we then provide a secure and affordable food supply here in the UK? Would we just export our carbon emissions to other countries where it’s out of sight, out of mind and more difficult for us to affect the positive changes we need to make for the planet? 

That’s why we, as an evidence based organisation, are not only working with UK farmers to help them identify where they can improve and reduce their environmental footprint further, but also provide a balance to the mixed messages consumers hear to ensure they know the facts about UK livestock production. Just last week I took part in a number of interviews for radio stations across the country explaining how different our practices are in the UK in comparison to those on a recent documentary showing intensive farming in the US and South America. It’s fairly unlikely that people here will be consuming beef from a farming system which depletes rainforests, as Brazilian beef imports made up just 1% of the total global beef imports in 2018. 

The climate crisis debate has highlighted that we do need to consider the environmental impact of our diets and question the sourcing of all of our food. The environmental impact of food is also wider than just carbon, but needs to consider the loss of biodiversity, pollution of air and water, and the loss of soil health. Therefore, the question we should be asking is not whether we should be eating meat or not, but where has it been produced, and to what environmental and animal welfare standards. We also need to ask the same questions for all meat alternatives, and to consider both the local impacts and the wider global impacts for some of these non-meat alternatives. Only through assessing all of the potential impacts for meat and non-meat alternatives can we have a balanced debate that hopefully results in a balanced diet that is good for both us and the planet.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Case study: Behind the scenes at Kirkhouse Farm

Edward Dean, AHDB Strategic Farmer based in Cumbria
Cumbrian farmer Edward Dean and his son Ollie joined the Strategic Farm network in 2017, the year the initiative was launched for beef and lamb farmers. Their aim was to improve the overall efficiency of the farm business. Showing their innovative thinking, Edward has recently been praised on his addition of a new portable mast on his farm, which transfers valuable performance-monitoring data from his Limousin herd in the field back to the farm’s computer using a cloud storage facility.

Kirkhouse Farm is a 154ha farm in Cumbria with a flock of 200 commercial Texel ewes, 100 Cheviot, 20 pedigree Dutch Texels and a mix of nine rams. Edward’s father used to run the farm as a dairy enterprise until 2001, when foot and mouth ended dairy production and a decision was made to change the focus to meat. Now with 130 cows, and four Limousin bulls, Edward has spring and autumn calving and sells his cows as stores at 12 months old through auction.

What inspired you to join the Strategic Farmers network back in 2017?
We saw it as an opportunity to improve what we do on the farm and make it more sustainable, and ultimately improve profits. Self-sufficiency is key, especially without subsidy we knew it was going to be a challenging time moving forward.

How have you found the Strategic Farming community and events?
Everyone is very chatty and welcoming. At events there’s always lots of discussion and sharing of ideas. In our industry, people don’t tend to talk about problems they are having, but at the events everyone opens up a lot more and discusses what they are faced with and get lots of suggested solutions and ideas. 
I remember the first event we held, we were surprised at how many people turned up and how far they had travelled. As the events have gone on, I have noticed that the conversation has moved from a general discussion to more technical questions and deeper discussion. Everyone is more vocal about what they do and pointing out what they think we should do, and there have been some good suggestions which have really helped.

What changes have you made to your farming methods?
·       We have focused on herd health by using EBVs to select for AI
·       With our Texel flock, we have improved fertility by body condition scoring the ewes pre-lambing which has helped to control lamb size and improve ease of lambing
·    We have also started a screening and eradication scheme for Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) and Johne’s disease
·   The calving period has improved, we now have a distinct gap between spring and autumn calving
·       Following the soil analysis, which was done at the start of the process, we have started using a targeted fertiliser application which has reduced costs
·      We have also seen the benefits of using Farmbench to help calculate costs. Whilst it is not always an enjoyable task, it has proved imperative to the business and has helped us to prepare for the future.

Do you have any advice for new members starting in the Strategic Farming network?
Make full use of everything on offer, whether it’s the resources from AHDB, advice from others in the network or other events to attend. Try everything, some things will work and some things won’t. We have learnt quite a lot through the program, and we are still changing things now. It can take time to see the outputs from the changes you make, three years in and the changes are only just now taking effect. 

Ollie Dean, AHDB Strategic Farmer 
Ollie is 21-years-old and has been farming with his dad part-time since his early teens. This year he graduated from Newcastle University having studied agriculture and is now working full time on the farm with Edward.

Do you face resistance when it comes to suggesting change?
We quite often disagree on things but bringing a difference of opinion prompts discussion and makes you question the way you are doing things, which can only be a good thing. It’s good to change and improve what we do. Often when I’d come home from university, dad would generally be happy to make changes as long as I could explain and justify why I think it should be done. I’ve predominantly taken on the sheep side of the business more, which has involved looking at body condition scoring throughout the year as this was the focus of my dissertation. I now BCS at several time points; pre-tupping, weaning and just before scanning when I treat them for fluke and this has helped to keep them at the right weight. 

Where/who do you go to for knowledge?
Everywhere really. I’ve learnt a lot from my dad and obviously a lot through university. We have an independent consultation, Debbie Brown, who visits regularly and is extremely helpful. We also go on farm visits and conferences such as the recent sheep breeders round table event. There is always something going on and we are both open to suggestions.   

Do you have much involvement with the financial aspects of the business?
Yes, I have done pretty much all the way through, although I still haven’t got my hands on the cheque book! We go through the Farmbench figures together and although I found it difficult at first, I can see the benefits of doing it and it has proved really useful knowing where we can cut costs.

How do you feel about the future of the business in the current economic climate?
There is concern about the unknown with regards to Brexit; whether there will be an increase of cheaper imports from America, which will impact the market. It’s out of our control though so all we can really do is keep improving efficiency throughout the business. The recent bad press around the red meat industry as a whole is a challenge, whether it be for health reasons or environmental reasons, and it is disappointing to see us all being tarred with the same brush. Whilst this may be an ongoing topic, at least it has provided a platform for us to promote and shout about how our farming methods are different and more sustainable here in the UK, now all we need is for more people to listen and understand.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Is eating less red meat really a win for our health and the planet?

The recent report produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impacts of global warming has reignited the crusade against eating meat, specifically on this occasion, beef. However, the real messaging of the report appears to have been twisted to suit the needs of headline writers and single-issue campaigners.

From Parliament to dinnertime chat at home, the perceived impact of livestock farming on the environment is the hot topic. The BBC’s interpretation of the report on August 6 fed the fire of anti-meat rhetoric, suggesting the report should lead viewers to question whether meat-free diets could be a long-term solution to climate change.

However, what the report actually stated was: “Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.” Doesn’t sound very anti-meat does it? In fact, it backs the common sense notion that responsible livestock farming is part of the solution to climate issues, not the biggest offender.

Even as reporters tried to drive an anti-meat line in the press conference, experts from the panel repeatedly pushed back to say the analysis was not suggesting people turn away from meat – or any other food stuff. This did not stop the media creating their own story with the IPCC report as yet another nail in the coffin of eating meat.

Just a couple of days later, we had the announcement that Goldsmiths University of London has withdrawn beef from their menu on campus in a stance to tackle their own negative impact on the environment. This decision was, we are led to believe, partly steered by the messaging from the IPCC report.   

Along with other industry bodies, AHDB has been supporting farmers to highlight a key fact missed in almost all reporting on emissions and livestock farming: meat and dairy production in the UK is among the most sustainable in the world. We have clear standards on animal welfare, increasingly, farms have right grass management systems in place, we have plenty of rain to make naturally occurring grass growing which grazing animals eat to create protein for humans with very few additional inputs needed. It is a natural cycle that also returns fertility to soils through manure.

AHDB continues to bang the drum and there are many others doing their bit also to balance the debate. AHDB Beef & Lamb board member James Evans was on BBC Midlands Today on August 13, explaining how his grassland helps to revitalise the soil and capture carbon.

There is a lack of understanding about British beef production and the distinction between it and production elsewhere in the world. With British livestock grazing in grass-based systems, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are 2.5 times smaller than the global average. In fact, latest figures for the Committee on Climate change (CCC) acknowledge that emissions from farming amount to 9% of the national total, with 47% of that (so less than 4.5% total) from livestock digestion.

Combatting environmental degradation is without doubt in everyone’s interest. However, the UK is very different to other places on earth and, because of our natural environment and the weather, remains one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce red meat. In fact, without grazing cattle and sheep, as much as 60% of agricultural land in the UK would be taken out of food production, due to the fact it is not suitable for cropping or growing other produce. This would also significantly change the cherished landscapes we have in this country which livestock help to manage efficiently and naturally.

Another recommendation in the IPCC report around livestock is to have improved manure management systems in place and to research into genetic improvement of livestock. At AHDB we are proud to support our farmers with a number of campaigns to combat both of these issues including work to neutralise slurry and Signet Breeding Services which provides genetic evaluations to livestock producers to help them identify sheep and cattle with superior breeding potential.

In order to support the positive messaging and prevent well-intentioned individuals from being misled, AHDB has produced a range of soundbites and infographics which we have been sharing across social media, all of which are accessible for anyone to download directly from our website https://ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/red-meat-and-the-environment .

Amidst the slating of the beef industry for its environmental impact, there has also been a re-emergence of claims that red meat causes health problems,  with headlines such as ‘Red meat raises risk of breast cancer in women' and ‘Swap beef burgers for chicken cuts’. However, the evidence continues to support the position that red meat plays a vital role in a healthy, balance diet. To help push that message, we've put together a number of fact-based tools with the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) which help highlight the positive health benefits of eating red meat https://ahdb.org.uk/redmeatandhealth. There is also a Podcast available to listen to about meat and health here https://audioboom.com/posts/7319846-meat-and-health

So, the message when we are speaking to people about these challenges on welfare and red meat, is to look behind the headlines and seek out the facts. Plus, always remember, all foodstuffs have an environmental footprint of some kind and perhaps talk about the water demands of avocado farming or nut production for a change?

It should be all about balance.

Will Jackson

AHDB Beef & Lamb Sector Strategy Director

Monday, 20 May 2019

How to review your business in six easy steps

This month Neil Pickard, AHDB knowledge exchange manager, talks about the new 60 minute farm review and how you can review your business in six easy steps.

It’s hard to put in the time to think about your business performance when you’re busy actually doing the work. And what would be the benefits of doing so anyway, you know what you’re doing.

But do you actually have a clear picture of what your major costs are and how your herd or flock are performing? Will there really be a benefit from buying that extra piece of machinery or are you keeping the right amount of livestock to make maximum use of your grassland?

We’ve been talking to many of you and understand the time pressures, which is why we’ve come up with an easy to use assessment, which should only take about an hour to fill in. And by doing this you will get an immediate overview of the strengths and weaknesses of your business and be able to compare your technical and business performance with other similar farms in England.

What’s the point?

Let’s start with the most obvious – it could help you save money, or put another way, make you more profitable. If you can look at your business and identify that you’re not stocking enough animals for your land, spending too much on machinery or not calving or lambing to achieve the optimum output, then you can start to make small changes to your business.

We’ve tried to make this as easy and quick as possible. You can print the form and write down your figures. We’ve done all the calculation guides for you and will signpost you to any extra information you need along the way. And there’s an easy to identify green, amber and red format for you to follow, with possible solutions if you fall in the amber or red categories.

How do I get started?

The form is on our website. Just print it off and get started. Each section is broken down, so if you only have 10 minutes to spare at a time – break it down into manageable chunks. Our first two sections only take five minutes each, so you could do one while waiting for the kettle to boil and the other while drinking your coffee!

And when you’re finished with your own business assessment, you can see how you compare to other similar farms by accessing farm business survey results.

What happens next?

The next steps are really up to you. There may be easy changes you can make and our Better Return Programme manuals should be able to help you with many of those.

And if you’ve got the appetite to delve deeper, then our Farmbench programme would be the ideal next step. Where you will be able to calculate your actual cost of production for each kilogram of beef and lamb sold. It will also compare the profitability of each of your enterprises which may help you to decide which ones to expand or which to terminate.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Udderly troublesome: Mastitis in sheep

Kate Bamford is researching the role of chronic mastitis in sheep at the University of Warwick.
Her PhD, funded by AHDB Beef & Lamb, will complete in Autumn 2020. Here she writes a guest blog about how you can prevent and treat mastitis in your flock.

The sun is shining, the daffodils are out and the lambs are filling up the field. What could be more troublesome than finding a hungry and sad lamb? Mastitis in suckler sheep is often seen in the first two weeks of lactation, and then just before or after weaning. However, it’s possible at any time, so it’s important to be able to spot the signs early and make sure no lambs are left hungry. 

Spotting acute mastitis

Mastitis is defined as ‘inflammation of the udder’ and is usually caused by a bacterial infection. You can usually spot a ewe with mastitis when they have hungry lambs, are waddling to avoid touching their udder with their back legs, have gone off their food or are away from the rest of the flock.

The udder can feel hot and swollen and might be red in colour. Often acute mastitis will only affect one side of the udder and the ewe will have no milk from that side. If there is some milk, it may look watery, bloody or clotted. When you milk out, make sure it is into a container and not onto the floor, as this may spread the mastitis bacteria to other ewes.

Fast treatment

The earlier you catch acute mastitis the more likely the ewe is to fully recover. Even with fast treatment, there probably won’t be enough good quality milk for her lambs, so you may need to consider fostering or bringing them up as pet lambs.

As mastitis is a bacterial infection, you need to ask your vet which antibiotic they would recommend. It is also a good idea to give a painkiller and anti-inflammatory.

Mastitis is a painful disease and a ewe in pain will take longer to get back on her food. The anti-inflammatory will also begin to act on the swollen udder and help remove toxins caused by the infection.


Once lambing has started there are a few things you can do to reduce mastitis. Maintaining a high standard of hygiene in the lambing barn will keep the levels of bacteria down. Top up with fresh straw and remove wet soiled bedding where possible. When checking milk use a container and wash your hands between different sheep. Keep a bottle of antibacterial gel in your lambing shed if hand washing facilities aren’t available.

Lambs are dependent on their mother’s milk for the first 3 – 6 weeks. Lactating ewes need more energy than pregnant ewes to keep up the high milk yield and quality without compromising their own body condition. Underfed ewes in lactation triples the risk of mastitis.

Older and younger ewes are more likely to get mastitis. 

When a ewe is lambing for the first time, it will also be the first time their udder has developed and so it is softer and more prone to bites and lesions. These increase the risk of mastitis. Make sure these ewes get sufficient feed to enable their development and consider keeping them separate from the rest of the flock. This will enable you to keep an eye on them, avoid bullying, and minimise exposure to mastitis. Leaving a single lamb on ewe lambs will also improve their chances of not developing mastitis.

Other prevention strategies can be used throughout the year before tupping and lambing to keep your flock at a reduced risk of mastitis. These include managing chronic mastitis in your flock and culling ewes with poor udder conformation.

Chronic mastitis

Ewes with chronic mastitis will have a lumpy udder. Sometimes only a small lump can be felt and sometimes there may be a collection of lumps in the udder.

These are abscesses formed by bacteria and they can grow, disappear and reappear in the same sheep.

We know that the presence of these lumps is strongly associated with cases of acute mastitis during lactation. Where there are more lumps in a flock there is also more acute mastitis and so regular inspection and culling of ewes with lumps may help reduce both cases of acute and chronic mastitis. 

For more information read the BRP + document Understanding mastitis in sheep