Thursday, May 23, 2019

Determination pays dividends for county council tenants

March 5, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Jim and Sue Fletcher have built a successful sheep enterprise in Norfolk. Judith Tooth reports.

Not many East Anglian farmers would consider trying to make a living on 50ha (120 acres). But Jim and Sue Fletcher did – and theirs is a heartening story of hard work, continued learning and determination creating a successful and expanding business.

County council tenancies are hard to come by: Jim was among 90 applicants when four Norfolk holdings came up to let in 1998, and became the council’s youngest ever tenant two years out of Shuttleworth College.

He’d been brought up on a county council farm in Cambridgeshire and knew he preferred livestock to growing crops – but 50ha of arable land at Nordelph near Downham Market was to be his start in farming.

It wasn’t an easy start: soon after buying their first 280 in-lamb ewes at the end of 2000, foot-and-mouth struck and, although their flock didn’t contract the disease, lamb prices were half what they’d expected.

Sue, studying for her HND at West Anglia College, picked flowers and Jim picked stones to make ends meet.

A few years on they found themselves in a Defra control zone: again, their sheep were healthy, but movement restrictions to control blue tongue cut the farm in half and meant parts of it couldn’t be grazed for two years.

Australia and back

They decided to emigrate to Australia and got their visas, but family health problems prompted a change of plan and a renewed resolve to make the farm work. Since then, Sue says, they’ve gone from strength to strength.

Farm size and flock size have increased, but there was one more setback to overcome: they had been lambing 600 ewes at Christmas and finishing the lambs indoors for the Easter market, but high cereal prices made the system unsustainable.

That’s when they started looking at conservation grazing – and opened the door to what has become a very successful enterprise.

“We now lamb 1350 ewes and 350 ewe lambs in April, half outside, and youngsters and any ewes needing help inside,” says Jim. “We do contracting for other local sheep farmers with our Prattley mobile handling system, and also do a lot of shearing.

“We specialise in grazing other people’s conservation grasses: there are a lot of wetlands round here – RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Welney Wetland – and a lot of private estates, all within a 40-mile radius in every direction.

“Wherever we go we generate more interest: for example we sent 1000 ewes to Whittlesey Wash near Peterborough as the grass was too long there for wading birds, and from that got more calls.”

Grazing strategy

With a lower carbon footprint than mowing, grazing is a more attractive option to wildlife organisations. Being often poor quality grass, though, only 15-20% of the lambs are fattened off the ewes, so after weaning at the beginning of August the lambs go on to stubble turnips and vegetable leftovers.

Grazing the leftovers has further environmental benefits, says Jim: it saves on cultivations before ploughing, helping the vegetable growers lower their carbon footprint for supermarket contracts.

When the farm was first grassed down a Countryside Stewardship scheme for arable reversion helped finance the change; now it is under an ELS agreement focused on grassland managed with no or very low inputs.

The farm’s sheep enterprise reflects this. A grant-funded visit with Easton College three years ago to New Zealand – where sheep have earned money without subsidies for the past 20 years – helped Jim refine his  ewe breeding programme.

Replacements are now bred on the farm from 300 Beulah draft ewes put to either Hartline or New Zealand-bred Highlander maternal rams to produce ewes that lamb easily, milk well and have good feet.

A further 200 ewes, Romneys used to grazing marshy grassland, have just been bought to put to the same rams. The resulting ewe lambs, and 400 Texel crosses, are put to Primera rams, terminal sires that “grow like mad and lamb easily”.

Flock management

The aim is to build the flock to around 2000 ewes, and to achieve, at weaning time – 15-16 weeks – the weaning weight or more of the ewe. So, if a ewe weighs 70kgs, her twins should weigh 35kgs each.

Using this information, as flock size increases, so the bottom 10-15% of the flock, often big ewes producing small lambs, can be culled out.

From January  all lambs are electronically tagged; having already made that investment Jim and Sue are well placed to implement management decisions. The Prattley mobile system includes automatic weighing and data is recorded on Farm IT Border software.

A handheld system can also record individual operations such as injections and decisions such as culling after, say, three foot problems, can be implemented easily.

Soon operations like handling and worming will be carried out under cover in a new shed which Jim is helping to build, and which is needed to reduce dirty water run-off into ditches  under the Ouse catchment sensitive area.

Lamb exports

The majority of finished lambs go for slaughter through farmer cooperative Anglia Quality Meats to ABP at Yetminster, Dorset, and from there, most of the meat is exported to France.

There is nowhere locally to take the number of lambs the farm has ready at one time and, if there were sold in a local market, says Jim, they would be giving them away as there are not enough buyers. The system works well and lambs provide the backload for cattle coming from Sussex to Lincolnshire.

Working with Jim and Sue is level four apprentice attached to Easton College, Leah Catchpole. She has another year to train by which time, says Jim, she’ll be ready to run a sheep enterprise like theirs.

They push all their students to get their qualifications and are encouraging Leah to work in New Zealand for a while.

“We’re very much into the future of farming,” says Sue. “For a long time the industry has been very set in its ways, but we believe we must invest in youngsters and learn to adapt and share knowledge.

“We had really good mentors, too, so it’s only fair to give back.”


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