Laga Farms - Where the number of lambs matters!

Laga Farms Ltd, Evie, Orkney Flock 971

Laga_1.jpgWhen you look at a map of the UK look as far north as you can and a bit further and you come to the Orkney Islands. This is the home of Laga Farms Ltd, flock 971. This family run business consists of brothers Michael and Martin Cursiter. Michael’s son Sean works at home when he is not away shearing and Michael’s wife Ruth works alongside him whilst also juggling a job at their children’s nursery.

With just over 1,000 acres, there is plenty to keep them all busy. They own 700 acres and rent a further 300, a mixture or pasture and rough grazing. In addition to the grass land they grow 40 acres of barley for their own use. This is a long way from the original 60 acres of Laga which was bought by Grandfather and Father back in 1952. As neighbouring farms and land has become available, the family has invested.

The sheep flock consists of 800 Lleyn ewes. Martin has a handful of pedigree Texel and Sean a small flock of pedigree Charollais. The remainder of the flock is made up of Texel x Lleyn ewes which bring the total up to almost 900.

The 550 best Lleyn ewes are kept pure while those classified as the lesser ewes are crossed to the Texel.Laga_2.jpg Michael explains that “the few Texel x Lleyn ewes are put to the Charollais so we do not keep any ¾ Texel ewe lambs as the first cross makes the better ewe. The more Texel you introduce, the more feet and lambing problems we have found”.

Each year the best 50 Lleyn ram lambs are kept for potential registration. 400 pure bred ewe lambs and 120 Texel x Lleyn ewe lambs are kept on to shearlings. Approximately 250 are kept for replacements while the others will be sold for breeding through Society Sales. The remaining gimmer shearlings are sold in local marts Orkney and Dingwall. Michael explained that they also fatten lambs for Morrisons, he commented that “we are happy with their weights and grades and they do try to buy British”.

They aim to finish the lambs off grass. The majority do but for those smaller, later lambed which are still about in the new year, they get fed indoors in slatted sheds aiming to be away for the Easter Market.

Laga_3.jpgOrkney is renowned for its fertile land although Michael believes that Laga is below average hence the reason for sheep utilising the land better than cattle. The family would have more sheep but there is the risk of the land becoming ‘sheep sick’. Hence they run a suckler cattle herd comprising of 90 commercial suckler cattle, mostly Limouisn cross Shorthorn. They also have two small pedigree herds of Limousin and Shorthorn. Michael explains that “the cattle are here to act as worm hoovers and help balance the grazing. If we were all sheep the grass would be a mess in the winter and out of control in the summer”.

Michael had spotted the Lleyn whilst out contract shearing on the Island. “Fraser Balfour had experimented with a few which I thought looked like good working ewes of an efficient size” explains Michael. The Lleyn arrived at Laga in 1998 when 38 ewe lambs were purchased from Brian Atkinson at the Carlisle sale. Michael followed this with a larger consignment of lambs the following year. The lambs were brought home and to the surprise of the family they lambed at 180% as lambs which convinced the family that this was the way forward for the Laga sheep enterprise to ensure profitable lamb numbers.

Michael has always believed that it is the ewes that rear a decent pair of lambs that pay the rent. “NoLaga_4.jpg matter what sheep system you run, the first lamb keeps the ewe and the second lamb is the profit” says Michael. He is strongly of the opinion that if your land is capable of carrying twins, it makes sense to have a breed that lambs somewhere near 200%. “Our policy is to get as many ewes going out of the lambing shed with two lambs as possible. If you have too many lambs you can always put them on the automatic feeder but if the lambs are not there you cannot invent them”. Looking forward Michael comments that ewes that only rear one lamb, are only rearing half their body weight so will always remain dependent on subsidies.

Laga has scanned at a promising 190-200% for many years. Depending on the weather and other factors affecting sheep at the end of the summer the percentage reared is 165-175%. Scanning aids the management of the flock by allowing the multiples to be pulled separately from the singles and fed more which starts about 8 weeks prior to lambing.

All the ewes are given Cobalt, Selenium and Copper boluses before lambing alongside Heptavac-P. “We don’t give them boluses before tupping, to help reduce the risk of too many lambs. We only get 2% barren so fertility is not a problem”. Once lambed the ewes get Dectomax on about 1st June before going to the hill pastures. They are fluked and wormed before being put to the tup. The lambs get routinely foot bathed every three weeks and wormed every six weeks.

All lambing takes place indoors. Partly because the ravens and black backed gulls like to make a meal out of newly born lambs. This also suits the recording system in place on farm. The Cursiters have recorded with Signet since 1999. Recording is used as a tool to help selection but Michael says that “the eye will overpower the figures, recording is only used as a guide rather than the bible”. Michael feels that the Signet system is more useful for the terminal index, he feels the maternal index needs improving. So Michael with the help of his on-farm software, Border Software has created his own internal EBV. The total lamb weight reared by each ewe is taken into account to determine the efficiency of the ewe, so twins score more highly than singles.

As with all farming businesses Laga has had its ups and downs and 2013 was no different when they suffered with joint Ill and clostridial diseases in the lambs. This year they will be vaccinating lambs with clostridial vaccine earlier but also mixing alcohol with iodine to help dry the navel quicker, after taking advice from their vet

They have had to think of land use, they have re-seeded some permanent pasture and looked at changing the cattle and sheep grazing patterns. They have found that they struggle to get lambs to thrive on pasture which is grazed year in year out by sheep alone hence the cattle need to be brought in to break the cycle.

Laga Farms is well known among breeders for their Pedigree Lleyn Ram Sales. They attend many of the Society sales in the North and even travel all the way to South Wales to the NSA Builth Wells Ram Sale. The family has bought some top genetics including rams from Charles Sackville Hamilton (172/T185), Wynne Davies (50/C260) and Hamish Goldie (1312/D432). All three of these rams have made a significant impact to the flock. In 2007 following the foot and mouth incident at Pirbright, Laga topped all the sales they attended with their rams. At Carlisle they took 971/0600713 but did not sell him as they believed he was worth more. They took him home and used him as they knew he could breed long stretchy ewes “we should have used this tup more as he has left some excellent breeding ewes” Michael comments. He also bred Laga Performer which is doing well for the Bennett family, John Morton and Christine Lewis”.

In 2011 Michael and Martin paid the record price of 18,000gns for Prince of Powys from DN Bennett & Son. “We were prepared to pay this money as we felt our sheep had good confirmation but sometimes lacked character. Prince of Powys oozes presence and breed character”

The Cursiter Family once again bought the Champion ram out of Carlisle in 2013 from DN Bennett & Son. They are confident that he will have a positive effect on their flock.

By Heather Stoney

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