'A great day out - all the pleasure without the pressure!' Eighty visitors from the West Country, South Wales and the Midlands had a really interesting time on 31st July at Reuben Saunders' farm at Garsdon, near Malmesbury, where the West Country Lleyn Breeders Club held its annual Open Day. The weather was ideal for the farm tour, though the effects of the extended drought on the grassland were obvious.  

Reuben began by explaining that he is a tenant farmer currently operating across 450 acres on four main sites. He started his sheep enterprise 10 years ago, buying in excellent foundation stock including 'Lleyn Legend', Charles Sackville Hamilton’s ewe flock. The enterprise has expanded and 'now consists of 450 MV Accredited, Signet-recorded Lleyn ewes lambed outside, small pedigree herds of 20 South Devon and 15 Hereford cattle and 80 store cattle'. His focus is on 'breeding efficient, functional, performance recorded, grass-fed livestock to maximise production whilst optimising grazing strategies to minimise environmental (methane, CO2) impact and, at the same time, reducing the need for hard feed'.

All the land that Reuben rents is tenanted without the benefit of subsidy, so the stock have to be efficient to maintain a profitable business. 'For the Lleyn sheep, breeding aims are to produce an animal with a good structure that will rear twins and perform well on a low input system without the necessity for extra human intervention. This is done by a strict culling policy, based on farm recording and Signet Recording. The selection process starts at lambing with anything causing any problems being given a slaughter tag. Lambs are weighed at birth, most importantly at 8 weeks to identify the maternal qualities of the ewes (LLEYN GOLD Rating), and at weaning (100 days), aiming for a ewe to rear her own body weight in lambs. Lambs with breeding potential are also weighed at 21 weeks when eye muscle depth and fat depth is measured to give a good indication of carcase quality'.

We were taken on a trailer tour of the land near the farmstead, seeing the pedigree cattle herds and large groups of Lleyn ram lambs and ewe lambs.

A lovely bunch of South Devon cows and calves were much admired as the cows tucked into silage, there being absolutely no grass to graze. Reuben explained that 'the herd had been started in 2018, founded on animals bought at selected dispersal sales'. They looked a picture. As a measure of progress, Reuben said that '2 of the young bulls had come 3rd and 6th in the 11th National Show (Exeter, 2022)'. We moved on to the Herefords, again very impressive, with a high index, dark pigmented bull 'to reduce the incidence of New Forest disease'. For both breeds 'it is crucial for commercial performance that heifers calve in the Spring at two years old (as running a cow dry increases costs and is less carbon efficient) so a key target is for a cow to produce half its bodyweight in 200 days.'

And then on to the Lleyn. Reuben has a specific policy to maintain flock fertility. Barren levels are kept low (currently a 5 year average of 1.7%) by keeping as breeding stock 'only lambs that resulted from the first service cycle and choosing/rearing as rams only animals that were twins, from unassisted births (and from quality ewes)'.

The male lambs had been weaned 1-3 weeks ago and, as there was very little grass, they had gone into a store phase, but Reuben was confident that 'as soon as the rain comes, they'll spring up like mushrooms'. Every year he initially leaves 150 ram lambs entire but, as time goes on, he weeds them out to select around 25 he rears as rams. The ewe lambs were on a large field originally intended for hay but low yields (the drought again) led to re-purposing and the lambs were reaping the benefit.

At one of the halts on the tour, one of Reuben's vets Kathryn Hart explained 'the importance of efficient production in minimizing methane/CO2 generation and the role of rotational grazing in achieving that. The sheep are moved every 3-4 days to keep swards in their growth phase and increase output by 20-25%'. Increasing carbon sequestration in the grassland was also discussed, with 'herbal leys being used, minimizing concentrate usage while still achieving good lamb/cattle growth rates. The high tannic content of the herbal swards also slows down the life cycle of worms'.

Then back for tea - a wonderful spread, with the background buzz of farmers discussing what they'd seen on the tour, the drought and what the future holds.

The competitions (weight of 5 lambs; 8 week weights of a set of shearling rams; ranking order of 5 ewes) were very popular and there was a clean sweep of prizes by our South Welsh visitors (taken in pretty good part by the locals).   

Bill Harper, the Club Chairman, thanked our Judges (Richard Twose and Lionel Organ) and Reuben and his wife Sam as well as all those who helped make the event a success. He also commended Reuben's vision, strategy and sheer hard work as an example of the contribution a young farmer can make to the industry.

All in all, the Open Day was extremely friendly, enjoyable and inspiring, bringing together some old friends and many new faces.

Anyone wanting to learn more about Reuben's enterprise should go to www.boakleylleyns.co.uk . And, for those interested in Lleyn, the next Lleyn Sheep Society Sale, with quality stock suitable for both the commercial and the pedigree breeder, will be held at Exeter Livestock Centre on Thursday 25th August at 10 am (Kivells - 01392 251261; www.kivells.com.)    

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