John and Helen Renner
North Belshill, Northumberland
Sheep have proved to be the break into farming in their own right for John and Helen Renner. Having been tenants from 1997 until 2006, John and Helen bought North Belshill Farm, Belford, a move they admit they were lucky to be able to make. “Thankfully, when we bought the farm we also took on the farmhouse and two cottages all of which we have sold to lessen the debt burden.”
While tenants they had managed both the arable and sheep enterprises themselves, but latterly the arable operation has been managed on share farming agreement leaving the couple to concentrate their efforts on the expanding livestock business.
Their sheep flock began in 2000 as a group of Blackface draft ewes which were put to a Texel tup to breed what John believes is the perfect ewe for their system. “The Texel x Blackface is an excellent mother, is well fleshed and crosses well to a Suffolk, our terminal sire of choice.”
So in creating their flock, John and Helen have managed to encapsulate the UK’s stratified system on one farm – hill ewes to breed lowland replacements and crossbred ewes put to terminal sires to produce prime lambs.
And while buying draft Blackface ewes means the flock can not operate as a completely closed flock, these ewes are all bought
Alongside this operates a thorough health plan which allows the flock to be managed according to a number of strict protocols, including quarantining incoming animals and treating them for scab, lice and worms on arrival. Other core elements of this plan involve vaccination strategies, worming plans and grazing management.
This is backed up by comprehensive record keeping which allows replacement selection to be tailored to ensure ewes coming into the flock haven’t been bred from mothers suffering regular health problems, such as repeat footrot or prolapses.
The result is a product with full traceability from conception to consumption which is in demand from a number of customers, most notably the Tree House restaurant at Alnwick. “We supply the restaurant with about a third of our total lamb crop, agreeing a fixed price with them at the start of the season. We aim for lambs to be an average weight of 21kg, as they prefer the heavier carcasses and, following a taste test by their head chief, only supply them with Suffolk crosses.”
These sales, while not the bulk of the flock’s income have a significant impact on its bottom line, lifting the average sale price well above market level.
Backing up these sales is John and Helen’s heavy focus on consumer and public education, largely through their status as a LEAF demonstration farm. “Public education is one area we’re passionate about and it now represents a significant part of what we do. It does take a lot of time, but its rewarding to see children leave here with a better understanding of where their food comes from and how it gets to their plates.”
Backing up this work is the farm’s website, a recent development which helps school groups understand what they’ll see when they come to the farm and let’s them follow developments at North Belshill once they’re back in their classrooms. “Having the website means they can continue learning once they’ve been here. A one-off farm visit is good, but ongoing understanding is far more valuable.”
|What the judges liked|
Sheep Farmer of the Year Finalist