Determination, total commitment and plenty of hard graft are all essential ingredients for any self-starter seeking to be successful in modern farming.

On top of these vital necessities, it may well be important also to add value – to compensate for an almost inevitable lack of scale.

So, starting from scratch to build a farming business is a pretty tall order. But, as hoof trimmer-cum-Beltex sheep breeder David Thornley is proving, it is by no means impossible.

David’s interests in agriculture were established at a young age. He attended Broomfield Agricultural College in Derbyshire and worked his way up the farm management ladder until he set up his own cattle foot-trimming business. When the chance subsequently arose to rent 18ha (45 acres) and start farming in his own right, he jumped at it, started a sheep flock and has not looked back.

“The pedigree Limousin herd I was managing was sold on for restocking after foot-and-mouth in 2001 and this was the catalyst for me to start up on my own. But to be honest I was already looking for the next challenge by this time,” recalls Mr Thornley.

“I’d gained a lot of experience in foot trimming while managing the Limousins, so this was the obvious way to go. I’m managing to develop the sheep enterprise alongside the foot trimming it’s hard work, particularly at lambing, but in some ways it makes a welcome change.”

David bought his first pedigree Beltex breeding stock from leading players such as David and Ivy Bishop’s Luggsmill flock. His own 60-ewe pedigree flock now trades under the Dooley prefix and is a source of breeding rams. He also runs a commercial flock of Beltex cross ewes, producing high-quality finished lambs that are either sold direct to a local restaurant or retailed as half or whole lambs to local customers.

dave thornley

Success in the pedigree sales is illustrated this year, with Beltex shearling rams from the Dooley flock recording the top price at both Chelford and Worcester. This has also been mirrored in the showring, with some notable achievements at all levels.

While the breeding underpins David Thornley’s success in shows and sales, nothing is possible without attention to detail in the day-to-day management, with a big focus on nutrition. Improvement of the permanent pasture and implementation of rotational grazing – to maximise grazing quality for young lambs and minimise worm burdens – has been important, as has the recent introduction of supplementary selenium for all lambs.

Selenium deficiency

“Up until this year we’ve had five or six lambs each year that struggled with stiff joints and simply didn’t thrive,” he says. “This is an indication of selenium deficiency, and in the past I’ve injected any lambs that have been affected.

“Injecting lambs is a job I can do without and I reckon that if you are seeing symptoms in a handful of lambs, then all the rest may also be affected, albeit less seriously.

“We’ve solved the problem very cost effectively with the help of our feed supplier, which has included a selenium supplement in our creep ration. We’ve not had a single case this year, and we’ve produced the best crop of lambs ever.

“Given the response we’ve seen in the lambs, there is clearly an underlying selenium deficiency problem,” he adds. “We are now considering including a selenium supplement in the ewe rations, as it will improve their selenium status and also mean higher levels being passed through to the lambs in their milk.”

Ewes bearing twins are fed a concentrate ration from about four weeks pre-lambing up to about 0.5kg a head a day, with this rising to about 0.75kg after lambing, while single-bearing ewes receive a reduced ration.

The quality of finished lambs is something he believes is essential for his growing retail trade and is a key feature to maintaining the highest possible prices.

“Lambs are killing out at more than 50% and I have had some as high as 58%,” he says. “This is important because it means I can achieve a higher premium for the privately-sold boxed lambs and it also keeps customers coming back for more.”