For many people, tenant farming a parkland estate with inherent grazing restrictions would make them shy away from sheep production, but not Gavin and Abby Atterton.
Far from it – by putting innovation at the heart of their business they have boosted flock productivity and built a profitable lowland sheep enterprise.
The Attertons of Vicarage Barn Farm, Tisbury, Wiltshire, manage 162ha (400 acres) of permanent pasture for Fonthill Estates – a 4046ha (10,000 acres) holding to the west of Salisbury.
As Mr Atterton is quick to point out, it’s not the most productive grassland for lowland sheep, but grass availability has not stopped them lambing three times a year to produce a year-round supply of high-quality finished lambs.
“We may be restricted on what we can grow – the estate clearly has to look good and for that reason we’re never likely to sow any chicory or brassicas here – but that doesn’t mean we can’t beproductive.
“Most of our grazing is old permanent pasture, but we do have about 4.45ha (11 acres) of productive red clover that allows us to take a silage cut and finish about 300-400 lambs with some supplementary feeding. The rest of the lambs are finished in the shed,” says Mr Atterton.
There are 1000 ewes at Vicarage Barn Farm with plans to increase to 1300. Despite the challenging grass situation, lambing percentage averages 165% thanks to supplementary pre-tupping feeding. Last year, only 11 older ewes were barren from the 1000 put to the ram.
About half the flock are Berrichon du Cher x Beulahs with the rest predominantly Mules. The Attertons lamb in March and May, but have also recently introduced a small flock of Dorsets and Dorset crosses to start a third lambing in October.
In another example of innovation, the Attertons shear all their March-lambing ewes in January and their May-lambing flock in early April, a practice which reaps significant dividends, according to Mrs Atterton.
“The main benefits are that it promotes higher lamb birth weights and easier teat-sucking because there is no wool in the way, but we’ve found winter shearing works well on a number of levels. We lamb the March flock indoors in old cow kennels and, if the ewes had a full fleece, they would definitely get heat-stressed in this accommodation.
“Minus fleeces we can also stock the shed more densely, yet at the same time see exactly what is going on. And a ewe with no fleece on after birth is also far less likely to get struck outside soon after lambing,” she points out.
Mrs Atterton acknowledges the sheared ewes eat more feed in the run-up to lambing than on a conventional system, but argues the animals use the feed more effectively – diverting it into healthy foetal growth, as well as putting on a condition score themselves in many cases.
Maximising the nutritional value of what grass is available to them has been something of a crusade for the couple.
“We do have to use a fair amount of supplementary feed on our system and have spent some time refining the approach to maximise productivity and profitability.
“It’s a challenge, but the system is well honed now for the labour levels we can afford, which are essentially Abby part-time and me,” explains Mr Atterton.
At housing, Rumevite high energy and protein blocks are introduced for ewes carrying twins. Those with triplets also receive some concentrate. Six weeks from lambing ewes with singles gain access to the blocks and four weeks from lambing all ewes move on to Lifeline blocks.
“We switched from a predominantly concentrate-based supplementary feed system in 2007 because it was too labour-intensive. Using the blocks saves me two hours a day in feeding time and they are also slightly cheaper. And we prefer the block to the tubs because there is less packaging,” Mr Atterton points out.
“The system is working well. You can always tell the mark of a good supplementary feed by the way your replacements do on it over their first lambing. After all they are still growing as well as producing another sheep and this year our ewe replacements produced some cracking lambs after being on Lifeline.”