Sheep Farmer of the Year Finalist – John Martin

John Martin

Gordonhall Farm, Co Down

* Sharp, suave and sophisticated are rarely words associated with sheep farming, but they perfectly sum up John Martin and his approach to lamb production.

Sheep may not always have been the backbone of his farming business, but John is adamant they have a key part to play in the

Farm facts

  • 78ha mixed sheep, beef and arable unit with willow coppicing enterprise
  • 500 ewes, 25 suckler cows
  • Former Northern Ireland Focus Farm
  • Limited expansion opportunities
profitablity of his Greyabbey, Northern Ireland, mixed farm. “We were carrying about 90 suckler cows, but the demise of headage payments has meant they are unprofitable, so numbers have been cut back to 25 to allow sheep numbers to expand.”

Some may question whether sheep leave any more margin than beef, but with a driven, market-focused man like John at the helm, it’s clear this business is one where every pound spent has to earn more back.

And to ensure this profitability is sustainable, he has embarked on a breeding programme to develop an easier-care flock suited to the farm’s coastal location on the Ards Peninsular.

“We’re breeding a composite ewe combining Texel, Lleyn and Romney genetics to provide a hardy, easier-care ewe which leaves a well-fleshed prime lamb.” Alongside this, having been involved in easier-care management research, John has for the past two years been using half New Zealand-bred Suffolk sires. These have, he says, proved successful and are leaving increased profits compared to UK-bred Suffolks due to improved lamb survival at birth.

With crossbreeding a top priority, all sires purchased are performance recorded and maternal traits have been a priority in recent years.

As chairman of Strangford Down, the local marketing co-op, John is acutely aware of the issues surrounding lamb marketing, but the strength in numbers the group offers has been essential to ensuring every lamb is sold to its maximum value.

Alongside the Strangford option, two local butchers also regularly source lamb from Gordonhall Farm, providing a premium price and a market for heavier lambs which fall outside of other retailers’ standard specification.

Flock management has also changed in response to reduced demand for new season lamb early in the year. “More than 150 ewes were lambed for this market for some years, but this is now back to less than half that as only private butchers pay a realistic premium for them.”

By lambing a proportion of ewes outside in March, John reckons feed and labour costs have been cut by 70% and overall flock health has improved. Health is a top priority, with all ewes vaccinated against enzootic and toxoplasmosis abortion and footrot. On top of this, faecal egg counts are playing a key role in minimising wormer use and helping limit the development of resistant worms on farm.

John Martin judgingBut with so much going on, accurate record keeping is essential and this year he has moved to recording all lambing and other flock data on a PDA. “This means records can be updated in the field and ensures decisions can be made without having to trawl through endless reams of paper.”

Not that the PDA is used solely for the flock it also enables John to record fertiliser and spray applications as they happen to stay in line with the farm’s Countryside Management Scheme.

With only 78ha of land to farm and local land prices limiting expansion, John has taken on a number of off-farm roles, including local lay magistrate, a member of the Northern Ireland Valuation and Land Tribunal and director of two off-farm businesses. These provide some additional income, but more importantly in John’s eyes allow him to understand how other industries work and give him interaction with the public.

What the judges liked

  • Sophisticated marketing strategy makes maximum value of all lambs.
  • Useless detailed records as an aid to flock management.
  • Committed business improvement, showing leadership to others.
  • Encourages interaction with the local community.
  • Strong focus on enviromental impact of farming.

Sheep Farmer of the Year Finalist