Reflecting on a “bad” winter … what do we mean? The UK winter which is nearing its end has been miserably wet though not very cold. This is an unpleasant combination for farmers and for sheep.
When the weather is wet, it’s more difficult to move around the fields, there’s mud in gateways and “poaching” of muddy damaged grass extends many yards into the fields themselves from each gate. And then if it has been windy, the gutters that feed the rainwater tanks may be damaged, causing leaks and more mud at a time when getting a ladder out to do repairs is unusually difficult.
Meanwhile, last winter in Orkney was so bad that it resulted in bankruptcies and even suicides, with no grass, no hay, no feed and therefore many sheep had to be slaughtered (for no good return) rather than letting them starve.
And when the weather is wet and the ground is wet, sheep feet suffer, and if there is no frost, all the lovely pests and bugs continue to survive through the winter when they should have been killed off. Thus the risk of foot infections, worms and flies increases during the winter and beyond.
Meanwhile the grass contains loads of water and less nutrition … and the in-lamb sheep will need additional feed, minerals and vitamins to maintain their health and that of their lambs.
So the effect of a mild, wet winter extends into the following spring and summer. Last summer was pretty good for most of the UK, which meant that at least there is not a shortage of hay and straw as has happened in some years recently.
So those who are endeavouring to manage their flocks entirely on grass will have had a more difficult time than usual, and managing to a cost structure that permits a profit when sheep meat prices have been below the five year average for most of the last 12 months (admittedly the two previous years had raised that average) becomes very difficult.
With challenges in beef and milk as well, farmers currently really do have something to complain about!
Winter is also the time to take stock and make plans: we know that modern diets require less meat-eating and that sheep populations are falling in Australia and New Zealand, so there is a good opportunity for breeding specialist British breeds for their unique leaner meat, as well as considering the potential additional income from growing the best quality wool. So working through the numbers, possibly reducing and keeping the very best quality animals only and not necessarily planning for one but rather for two or three years would seem a sensible approach.
Monitoring the flock, carefully watching for signs of fluke and worms, ensuring resistance to worm treatments is limited, as also with fly-strike treatments, seeking the healthiest animals with the best immune systems, to minimise the need for expensive treatments, is also important. This will pay dividends – culling out animals with a poor record is not only sensible financially and for the breed and flock but also reduces the potential number of animals in pain or distress.