Huw Davies is just back from a trip to Romania through the EU network on sheep productivity, SheepNet, where he discovered developments in agriculture there and how Romania deals with light lambs.
On a daily basis there seems to no escape from BREXIT headlines and the hypothesis on how detrimental this choice by the British electorate could be to our red meat industry in the UK. It was therefore refreshing to get an invite to a SheepNet international workshop in Timisoara, Romania.
SheepNet (www.sheepnet.network) is an EU Horizon 2020 research network about practice-driven innovation to improve productivity of milk and meat sheep. A critical component of farmers’ income, and therefore of the sustainability and attractiveness of sheep farming, is the number of lambs reared per ewe put to the ram, and the number of milking ewes per ewe put to the ram.
The SheepNet project is comprised of the six main sheep producing EU countries (Romania, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Ireland), and Turkey. Hungary were also invited to this workshop due to the proximity of Timisoara to the Hungarian border. Dr Claire Morgan Davies of SRUC is the network facilitator project lead from the UK.
The key aim of the project is the exchange of scientific and practical knowledge among researchers, farmers and advisors across Europe and to promote the implementation and dissemination of innovative technologies and practices. https://www.sruc.ac.uk/news/article/1959/updates_from_sheepnet_%E2%80%93_the_eu_network_on_sheep_productivity
Romania is the 3rd largest sheep producer in the EU after the UK and Spain with nearly 10 million ewes. Interestingly the sheep flock has increased by 14.2% since Romania joined the EU in 2007. This increase could be explained by the coupled support system; a baseline state subsidy of 4.4 Euros/ewe (min 50 ewes, no maxm.), performance and recording subsidy of 33 Euros/ewe (min 150 ewes, maxm 500 ewes) and an endangered breed subsidy payment of 22 Euros/ewe.
The breed structure is dominated (78%) by the Turcana indigenous dual purpose breed. Work is being done to develop a composite specialised breed using the Laucane (dairy) and Dorper (meat).
Our travels on our first day in the country took us along modern roads with flat arable land on both sides, stretching as far as the eye could see with the occasional flock of ewes grazing pasture land on a “shepherded” rearing system. This system consists of a flock being watched over constantly by a traditional shepherd and his dogs. Most flocks are on a low input system lambing once a year, although indoor lambing in sheds is increasing.
There is a debate in the UK about the introduction of certain species like the Lynx into the environment. Romania has the highest density of large carnivores in Europe with the exception of the Russian Federation; 7000 Brown Bears, 2500 grey wolves and 1950 lynxes. These animals are highly protected, and when sheep farmers do suffer the inevitable losses to these “predators” they are financially compensated by the Government.
The country has a self sufficiency in sheep meat of 150%, with a significant domestic Easter market requiring lambs between 14 and 18kg. The Romanian sheep processing capacity is limited with most lambs being exported live. The two main markets are Italy for the early season 25kg live weight lambs, and the Arab states like Saudi Arabia for the 35kg+ live weight lambs. There is a realisation that the development of processing capability and added value cuts could result in greater retention of the carcass value. There was also evidence that the welfare of live exported lambs was also becoming a social issue.
We visited two relatively large farms with flocks of over 2000 ewes. The first farm practiced out of season breeding, lambing 3 times in 2 years. Hormonal treatment was used to initiate out of season breeding with conception rates of between 90 and 92%. Prolificacy was 130 – 135% with the lambs sold between 21 and 30kg, ideally 25kg into the Italian live market for 2.50Euro/kg.
The second farm visited purchased store lambs for finishing in addition to its own ewe flock. Up to 3000 weaned lambs were procured at 1.6Euros/kg live weight and finished indoors on 15%CP pelleted feed to a weight of 40-45kg live weight. These lambs would then be sold live to the Arab states ideally for 2.1Euros/kg live weight, but the market had recently dropped to 1.8Euros/kg which was not acceptable to the farmer.
The finishing shed cost 500,000 Euros with a 300,000 Euro contribution from the EU. With this level of infrastructural investment in the Romanian sheep industry, there is inevitability in them modernising their production systems rapidly. Our engagement with both the farmers we visited highlighted their thirst for knowledge, and drive to improve efficiency and the productivity of their farms. There was also a commonality with the UK in the realisation that the market for small lambs is decreasing. The Mediterranean markets are increasingly moving from carcasses to specific cuts and the economics of processing small lambs is economically challenging compared to the 13 to 14kg+ dead weight lamb. As mentioned the welfare implications of the live lamb export market is starting to be questioned and the lack of in-country processing capacity.
Our last visit on the first day was to a factory producing 15 dairy products from sheep, cow, goat and buffalo milk. The factory was built in 2011 at a cost of 2 million Euros with 50% EU funding. The factory is owned by 13 sheep breeders, and supply into 3 domestic supermarket chains, and export customers in Slovakia, Spain and Italy. The factory specialised in producing a salty white table cheese, a maturated yellow cheese and a sheep milk yogurt. The sheep milk is collected from approx. 80 farms at a price of 0.6Euro/lt. Most of the farms still undertake manual milking with ewe lactation length being around 3 – 4 months and average milk production at 40 – 60kg/ewe.
The second day was spent in a workshop scenario with the farmers, consultants and academics from the involved countries. Discussions revolved around innovative ways to improve the metrics around the number of live lambs produced on farm. Key areas identified were gestation and reproduction efficiency and lamb survival based on lamb performance and management practices.
This visit to Romania was enlightening in that it allowed good dialogue and the exchange of ideas with our European neighbours, and the insight into a country that is modernising and upskilling its sheep industry.