Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Keeping their options open

April 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth talks to a Norfolk sheep farming couple making new decisions in uncertain times.

Last October was crunch time for Norfolk sheep farmers Jim and Sue Fletcher. Faced with uncertainty and terrible market prices, they decided to hold back 500 of the Romney x Highlander shearling ewes they would usually have sold and instead put them to an Aberfield ram. The Aberfield, a terminal sire with maternal traits, is their insurance policy if Brexit goes wrong.

“The Aberfield is a Texel cross, so has good conformation,” says Jim. “If the [resulting] lambs are worth a lot, we’ll sell them fat. If not, we’ll find extra winter grazing and either sell them for breeding next year, or take on more grass and increase our flock numbers. It keeps our options open.”

Although the home farm is small – a 48ha Norfolk County Council holding near Downham Market growing grass leys, fodder beet and spring barley – a large part of the business is running sheep on other people’s land, either low input permanent grass in environmental schemes and on river banks, or greening crops and stubble turnips, in a 30 mile radius of the farm. 

As well as the 500 ewe lambs held back, the Fletchers are running an 1800-strong flock, a third of them Romneys bought in as three or four crop draft ewes from farms around Ashford, Kent. They are used to surviving on poor grazing and scan out at a lambing rate of 150-160%.

Back in Norfolk, they are put to a Highlander ram, a maternal Romney cross from Innovis, bred using genetics from New Zealand, and scan out at 200 per cent. The Romney x Highlanders are then put to a Primera ram, a terminal sire, again from Innovis, to produce fat lambs.

“We would normally have bought more Romneys in at a draft sale, so by bringing in the Aberfield this tupping season the flock is younger and healthier.”

Ultrasound scanning

Meanwhile the flock has been brought in for ultrasound scanning. The process is very accurate, and knowing how many lambs they are carrying means the ewes can be fed accordingly: those carrying singles go back to grass; those carrying twins and triplets are on supplementary fodder beet and high energy Crystalyx feed blocks.

Lambing for the home-breds begins on 1 April, half outside and half in straw yards. Ideally they all would lamb outside, but some of the grazing areas such as riverbanks aren’t suitable.

The Romneys follow on 10 April, all lambing outside. First year veterinary students from the Royal Veterinary College and Surrey University come to help. With 80% of the ewes lambing in 10 days, it’s full-on.

“The ewes milk well and the lambs are up on their feet in no time at all,” says Sue. “At most, we help three in 100. Outside, they find their own spot and pop them out. Inside you have to be quick to pen them as they lamb, as they have a very strong maternal instinct.

“We’ve learnt over the years that the less you interfere the better – if you have the right breeds. Once you start interfering you build up problems.”

Taking a step back benefits the farmer as well as the sheep, as Jim discovered on a grant-funded study visit to farms in New Zealand a few years ago: their relaxed attitude left a deep impression on him.

Something else he learned was what he regards as the best way to calculate output: “You need to wean the ewe’s weight in lambs or more – so if you have a ewe weighing 70kgs, you’ve got to wean two lambs of 35kgs each or more.

Then you’re doing well. We can achieve that on conservation grazing without creep feeding: it’s hard, but possible. We mob graze when we can, make sure there’s fresh grazing, and keep on top of worming.”

Finishing lambs

All lambs not for breeding are finished on the farm. As most of the available grass is poor quality, only about 10 per cent of lambs fatten off the ewes, and they go to Melton Mowbray, Thrapston and Newark livestock markets. The rest are weaned on to greening crops and are sold through Anglia Quality Meats, mostly to ABP Yetminster in Dorset.

Grazing animals in multiple locations requires a lot of planning. Most sites don’t have any pens or permanent fencing, so a mobile Prattley sheep handling system, with 40 lightweight aluminium gates and room for 800 sheep – that takes just 10 minutes to put up – and a three-deck Houghton livestock trailer, are used to gather and move them from one site to another. The system includes a weigher, which, along with electronic ID, is used to calculate daily liveweight gain.

“We use an EID reader, which means we can have all the flock’s history on a hand-held system, and all the information we record is fed back to our Farm IT software,” says Jim. “So we might flag up ewes that have foot issues twice, or that have single lambs three times – there are certain things you can’t see by eye. These ewes are culled at the soonest opportunity.”

“We’ve always been forward-thinking,” adds Sue. “We don’t mind change and we’re big on professional development. Westpoint Farm Vets organise sheep meetings, and we attend a lot of open days. We try to get as much knowledge as possible and continually educate ourselves.

“We like training apprentices up, too, and hope to take on another apprentice in September through Easton and Otley College’s new livestock apprenticeship scheme.”

An application for funding for improving farm productivity in the new round of the Countryside Productivity Small Grants Scheme should help with renewing equipment and further technical improvements. And Jim and Sue are still waiting to hear if their mid-tier Countryside Stewardship application has been accepted.

Looking ahead

“Applying for Countryside Stewardship is another Brexit-related decision,” says Jim. “It’s a buffer, another income stream. All our land is rented, so we’re already at a disadvantage: we benefit from the BPS on our farm, but not on any of the other land our sheep graze.”

This means half the business is unsubsidised. “We’re trying to make our farm profitable without relying on subsidies, to increase our resilience. To do that we keep our cost of production as low as possible.”

The RSPB’s Andrew Holland helped with the application, which focuses on legume and herb-rich leys, whose anthelmintic properties should reduce the need for worming, and provide a high protein food source for finishing lambs. Capital grants under the scheme will help with renewing gateways and fencing, concrete yard renewal to reduce run-off and rainwater harvesting.

Jim and Sue have also joined the Ely Nature Friendly Farming Zone, a farmer-led group, all with Countryside Stewardship agreements, who meet regularly to discuss management techniques.

A recent farm walk took in G’s Growers, along with a like-minded group of Breckland farmers, to look at the establishment of bird seed mixes.  “Farming must be environmentally sustainable as well as productive and profitable,” says Sue.

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