Thursday, December 14, 2017

Norfolk farm lets record speak for itself

May 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Profiles

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A new approach to rearing livestock has produced pleasing results for West Harling farmer Richard Evans and his wife Sue.

“We’ve had so many disappointing experiences buying livestock,” says Breckland farmer Richard Evans. “So we’re trying really hard to make it a positive and easy and rewarding experience to buy from us.”

Richard and his wife, Sue, consider themselves strange livestock producers, being committed to both extensive organic production and intensive performance recording. But it’s a mix that’s producing encouraging results, all the more so because, in their words, Stonehouse Farm at West Harling is “a very small, very unproductive farm”.

Richard moved into what was a derelict farmhouse 30 years ago as a young shepherd. You can’t pay for 150 acres of sand from what it will produce, he says, and the challenge has always been farming with so many inefficiencies. But, over the years, he and Sue have taken on more land: they now rent around 2500 acres of mostly unproductive grazing, and own a further 100 acres at nearby Riddlesworth. On that are 1500 breeding ewes, 200 suckler cows and 9-10,000 turkeys. Alongside these enterprises is another, non-organic one, buying and fattening 4-5000 store lambs on stubble turnips on other farmers’ land.

“Improving net margins is starting point,” he says, “by having adequate numbers to cover fixed costs and adding value all the time. We’ve built up to a level that works for us, with one person on each enterprise – Lisa Adams manages the sheep,  Ryan O’Sullivan is on cattle and turkeys – supported by me, Sue, the children and other contractors, and we’re adding value by being organic and by selling breeding stock.

“At the back end of the 90s we were adding value through our own organic butchery, but that slightly overtook us. So although it was heading to be successful it wasn’t really us, and it was very much a combination of HLS and the new Single Farm Payment system gave us a safety net allowing us to concentrate on the livestock enterprises, which is what we’re all about.

“So now we’re concentrating on two breeds and we’re committed to performance recording both of them.”

There were other catalysts for change: post foot and mouth, they were asked by Natural England to set up a flock grazing heathland under its Sheep Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, and their Mules were not particularly suited to such an enterprise. This, and a difficult period of disease problems at their own farm, brought into focus the limitations of the whole Mule system, relying as it does on buying in replacements and having no influence on their genetic merit.

“We had always been interested in performance recording to ensure the stock become easier to farm and more profitable – overall the sheep and beef industries do very little and it frustrated me that there was massive potential to get worse and no potential to get better – and now this became much more logical,” says Richard. “Two things had stopped us doing it any earlier: collecting data while outdoor lambing, and handling data, which I’m no good at.

“So we moved from Mules to Lleyns, a very hardy breed with a superb temperament and mothering ability, prolific and producing a reasonable carcass. We can breed our own replacements and improve bio-security, and we can do all the tagging, weighing and recording whilst lambing outside”.

The flock was started in 2004 and recording began in 2010, since when maternal index has nearly doubled and carcass index more than doubled. Handling of data was solved by bringing analyst Sue Horner into the team. She produces all the records using Signet Breeding Services and has designed a colour coded system allowing large numbers of stock to be evaluated at a glance, both on the farm and by potential buyers.

The Lleyn Sheep Society has approx 1000 members, but fewer than 50 record the performance of their flocks. But among them, according to Richard, are some of the best farmers in the country who share the attitude that if you don’t identify the best you just stand still, and he compares his results with theirs. He has is also Chairman of a group, Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders, working together to improve the connectivity of the flocks.

“The farm is on target with sales of high genetic merit breeding rams, and breeding ewes are sold out – we could sell twice as many.”

It’s a similar story with the farm’s cattle: Richard and Sue wanted to improve the herd and found the relatively new Stabiliser, a composite breed of Simmental, Gelbvieh, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus, could meet their needs. Since 2009 they’ve been buying in high ranking Stabiliser bulls to put to their existing cows, and by next year their herd will qualify for pedigree status.

“As with sheep we couldn’t find a sensible replacement policy for the suckler herd.  But like Lleyns, Stabilisers tick every box, particularly ease of management and temperament.  They have 40 years of genetic research and improvement in America behind them, and they are now bred by some of the most progressive beef farmers in the UK.  In fact, there are now more recorded Stabilisers in the UK than any other breed apart from the Limousin.

“There are numbers of likeminded people across the country, and numbers of likeminded people who haven’t got time to record, so we’ve quickly found a market for what we’re doing: selling in-calf heifers. They’re sold on maternal production value, and 75 per cent of ours are in the top 10 per cent. And they’re in calf to a very good bull.”

The cows calve at Stonehouse Farm, while nearly all the lambing takes place at Riddlesworth, along with most of the turkey production. Having the sheep there, and finishing the male cattle at 16 months on a silage-based diet supplemented by cake for Waitrose, so that they don’t need to go out for a second season, means more cows can be kept.

“We have so many environmental disadvantages, but we do have the advantage of light, sheltered land for early outdoor calving and lambing,” says Richard. “Nutritionally it’s a poor area but have turned that into a selling point: livestock from here do very well when they go to another farm.”

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