How a resilient sheep dairy farm overcame multiple setbacks

Building a resilient farm system, along with strategies for improving mental health and resilience, have helped a Cumbrian business overcome multiple hurdles.

Faced with a whirlwind of challenges, Cumbrian farmers James and Catherine Hadwin could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel.

Despite 20 years of setbacks at Mansergh Hall Farm in the Lune Valley, the Hadwins have developed their own sheep dairy brand and improved technical efficiencies on their system.

In the process, James, a consultant with his own business JH Agri consultancy and the 5-agri group, and Catherine, formerly in human resources at Lancaster University, have developed mental resilience and learned to farm through volatility.

See also: Nigel Owens calls on YFCs to take up mental health training

Farm facts: Mansergh Hall Farm

  • 280 Lacaune cross East Friesian cross Aberfield dairy sheep
  • 250 Texel cross Romney and Aberfield cross commercial ewes
  • 30-35 rearing calves and 30-35 store cattle
  • Growing and finishing 600 pigs a year for hog roast business and local butchers
  • Finished lambs sold mainly to deadweight. Some sold liveweight or store depending on grass growth

Setback 1

The tumult began with the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, when the farm shop (open since 1995) was closed with no support.

It was also the year James left school and started farming at home.

The Hadwins took on land and grew their sheep and beef farm – all lambs from 1,200 ewes went through the butchery at its peak – but were forced to relinquish 121ha (300 acres) and sell owned land as the business was without income for almost 10 months.

When the 2008 recession hit, the farm shop was again challenged – this time by bad debt, as several hotels and restaurants saw profits plummet.

Alongside working at home, James worked at Myerscough College and then SAC Consulting, where he set up the Kendal office.

In 2014, James’s father, Jim, was given the all-clear from cancer. A succession plan was put in place and, with the business now on a firmer financial footing, James began earning a wage at home, and also launched JH Agri Consultancy.

A five- to seven-year succession plan would qualify him to take on the family’s Agricultural Holdings Act (1986) tenancy, which requires the inheriting party to have received a livelihood from the farm for five of the last seven years.

Setback 2

To produce enough from the tenancy – which was now less than 80ha (198 acres) – the family went into sheep dairying in 2015 to maximise output on the smaller holding.

The plan was to run a low-cost, forage-based system and use the infrastructure already in place on the holding to avoid massive financial exposure.

Two years into the plan, James’s father passed away. The family was given notice to quit on Christmas Eve.

“This threw our plans up in the air. We planned for everything but cancer,” says James, who eventually signed a 20-year farm business tenancy three years later.

“There were times when I wasn’t sleeping well, I was burnt out with setting up the dairy and worried about what was going to happen,” he admits.

Setback 3

With the sheep dairy set up and milk being collected by a co-op, James and Catherine continued dairying with hopes of expansion.

They finally signed the tenancy agreement in August 2019, with the farming area reduced to 64ha (158 acres) due to loss to game crops.

But seven months later – and within weeks of taking on a full-time staff member to take some pressure off – the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and the co-op rang to tell them their milk would not be collected. 

“We lost the budgeted £60,000 from our turnover overnight,” says James.

Taking control of product

Catherine called a family meeting – remotely on Zoom due to lockdown – and it was decided to try to rekindle old contacts from the farm shop days.

“We decided to take control of our product, add value and go it alone,” says Catherine.

They confirmed with the co-op that they could market their own milk, and the Love Ewe Dairy brand was founded.

With no co-op collections, the farm cut the milking portion of the flock from 150 to 50 ewes, with the remainder rearing lambs. Rearing calves were bought to use any excess milk.

A milk tanker was made by getting a flatbed trailer for £1,400 and a small bulk tank for £1,000, with a wash system and a milk pump. 

“I worked with every contact I could from the farm shop days and my consultancy and rugby days to help us get going,” says James.

The farm was recognised with a Covid Resilience award last year at the Cumbria Farm Business Awards.

Advice from the Hadwins

© MAG/Michael Priestley

1. Breed for resilience

  • Aberfield has been used to breed for robust feet on the dairy-bred ewes and improve grazing ability, as well as cut mature weight 20-25% to 75kg.
  • Wednesday used to be “feet day”, but now foot problems are far less frequent. Footbathing out of the parlour twice a day, alternately in formaldehyde and zinc sulphate, has helped too.
  • Lactation concentrate costs have been limited to £40 a ewe on a two-day rotational grazing system using electric fencing
  • Concentrate use is 0.25-1kg a ewe a day.

2. Work life balance

  • Using rotas avoids staff and the boss working seven days a week, allowing everyone to have family time. James coaches rugby at Kirkby Lonsdale colts.
  • James completed a mental health first-aid course to understand the signs and problems of stress in others.
  • Sufficient sleep, rest and play are prioritised and they are not embarrassed about walking the dog in work hours.

3. Fix nitrogen on-farm and improve utilisation

  • Legumes (red clovers) have cut back on fertiliser use. This had saved about £6,000 by the end of May, using 3.5t compared with 12t the year before.
  • 8ha (20 acres) of red clover is in its third year; 6.4ha (16 acres) of herbal leys have been established under an arable silage.
  • Annual liming has kept pH levels at 6-6.5 – no more than 2.5t/ha is used. Soil analysis shows magnesium lime is required this year with a “little and often” approach.
  • A dairy-beef operation is used in a leader-follower system to clean out paddocks after the dairy sheep pick the best, highest energy grass. This also helps manage parasite burden.

4. Diversify and add value

  • Extra cash is generated from 250 Texel cross Romney commercial ewes which uses the rougher semi-improved pastures.
  • A pig-rearing business sells finished pigs into James’s sister’s hog roast business and to local butchers.
  • James works off farm.

5. Use stewardship payments to improve the farm

  • Fencing grants have excluded sheep from wet areas to limit fluke risk.
  • Larger paddocks have been subdivided, with hedges and streams fenced off to ease electric fencing.
  • Deeper rooting and nitrogen-fixing herbal leys (GS4) are being used.

6. Limit machinery costs

  • Contractors are relied upon for all harvesting and muck spreading work – the farm has a tractor, a quad bike, a skid steer and a topper, and sold a trailer and a muck spreader.
  • Silage has been clamped in recent years, saving on the costs of wrap. An additive is used to save on energy losses.

7. Take comprehensive advice

  • Although a consultant himself, James takes advice from colleagues and bodies such as the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).
  • He says he still makes mistakes and benefits from getting other people’s opinions as he no longer has his father’s advice.
  • Farming can be isolating so it is important to spread the load. Question how and why you are doing things and alter the system.