Sheep farming used to be a stalwart of traditional farming practices and pedigree breeds. But as these three finalists show, change is in the air – and some of their ideas could transform the sheep sector for generations to come.
Treswarrow Park Farm, Port Isaac, Cornwall
Succession on family farms often results in ambitious young farmers boxed into a business that doesn’t fit. Not so for Philip Kent.
A dairy farmer born and bred, he left the family farm in 2006 for pastures new in the shape of his aunt and uncle’s sheep farm.
Liberated from the need to follow in his parents’ footsteps, Philip has taken a small sheep farm in north Cornwall into the premier league of lamb production.
Competition for land is fierce in Cornwall, with the climate and soil type meaning all manner of crops and enterprises are fighting for extra land. Working hard to secure the seasonal grazing needed to grow the flock means Philip often has to agree land on the shake of a hand. The climate is also a challenge with the grass burning off in early summer meaning he requires plenty of home-grown feed as a safety net for the dry year.
The judges liked
- – Extensive use of alternative forages to cut costs and cope with dry conditions
- – Recognising the value of quality advice
- – EID and data analysis for business decision making
- – Vision for long-term integrated grazing management
“It’s difficult down here because there is always the threat of a dry year and we need the arable to hedge that risk,” he says.
It may be the dairy farmer coming out in him, but Philip has overcome these challenges with a mixture of technical skill, an appetite for learning and rigorous recording of lamb performance.
He grazes 750 Romney cross Poll Dorset ewes on 140ha of grass alongside 250 ewe lambs and 140 British Blue cross Friesian calves reared for finishing. He also grows 30ha of cereals for livestock feed.
“We run a whole-system approach – the sheep need the cattle, the cattle need the sheep and the arable needs them both,” he says.
The introduction of arable cropping into the grassland rotation helps protect against the threat of dry years. It has also given him the opportunity to improve his grass leys with more drought-tolerant forage such as plantain, chicory, clover and yarrow, along with fodder beet for overwintering. As a result, routine creep feeding is a thing of the past.
The move to more drought-tolerant forage crops has allowed Philip to move from November to January lambing, which means he can get a good chunk of lamb crop drawn before the spring flush of lamb sales.
His early-draw lambs can achieve 500-600g/day of liveweight gain, but this will fall back later in the season giving him an average of 300g/day. The alternative forage crops are gradually bringing this average up to 400g/day, which will further reduce his 143-day period for lambs on farm.
- – 750 Romney cross Poll Dorset ewes and 200 ewe lambs
- – 140ha of grass on mixture of owned and seasonally let land
- – 30ha cereals
- – 140 British Blue cross Friesian calves for finishing
EID was incorporated into the business on his arrival in 2006, and now all decisions are based on the objective use of performance data. This has aided decision making when evaluating the choice of genetics, selection of replacement stock and also on reseeding based on lamb liveweight gain achieved on particular fields.
Lambs are double tagged and weighed once a week to monitor growth rates and health status. Ninety-three percent of lambs are sold at EUR 2 and 3L grades at an average deadweight of 19kg and are sold to Waitrose.
“Without the figures in front of us we wouldn’t have made the decisions we have on ram purchases and breeding replacements.
“Regularly talking through our costings is really productive and drives little changes all the time to improve our bottom line,” he says.
Flock health might be an area you would expect someone without a sheep farming pedigree to fall down on but Philip is an exceptional stockman.
Having increased the stocking density, he goes out of his way to stay on top of worm control. Faecal egg counts are carried out routinely and with a better insight into worm populations he has been able to reduce the amount of drenching in the flock.
It is a closed flock and he operates a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy on lameness, which is emphatically delivered through his weekly recording.
In the future Philip hopes to drive down his cost of production from £3.85/kg to £3.50/kg through increased use of protein crops and increasing stock numbers through rearing his own replacements.
He wants to see the farm grow into a bigger business, employing more people and securing long-term grazing lets. Philip knows that will mean moving into a more managerial role, with less hands-on farming to do, but that’s a challenge he is ready for.
“The more I have been listened to, the more enthusiasm I have to drive things forward,” he says.
Castlederg, County Tyrone
On paper you would be forgiven for thinking that Isaac Crilly was running a small, hobby sheep farm. You could not be more wrong. This small patch of grassland in Northern Ireland is a lamb production powerhouse. Everything is geared towards maximising output per hectare and there is nothing that will distract Isaac from producing the maximum amount of lamb from his land.
Isaac took on the 28ha farm from his father in 1979 with a continental flock of Texel cross Charollais ewes bred to target high-quality E- and U-grade lambs. When the lambing percentage slid to 130% with only 65% lambing unaided it was time for a rethink.
An invitation to join a research project on faecal egg counts with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Belfast transformed his attitude to sheep production. “It was one of the most influential periods of my life, allowing me to think outside the box and see different breeds,” he says.
Like most sheep farmers in the 1990s, Isaac was focused on conformation and grades but the research opened his eyes to other breeds and he quickly got into evaluating their recorded performance and selecting rams that would deliver more lambs per ewe.
The judges liked
- – Maximising output from available hectares
- – Focus on efficiently delivering to market specification through performance-based genetics
- – Detailed knowledge of costs and benchmarks performance
- – Lots of simple and clever efficiencies designed to reduce labour costs
“For too many sheep farmers everything is about conformation and appearance rather than output per hectare. Some of the biggest disappointments I’ve had have been from buying pedigree rams in the ring,” he says.
Belclares were introduced to improve the maternal traits of prolificacy along with New Zealand Suffolks to get the growth rates and the get-up-and-go. Initially he kept the Texel on as the terminal sire but soon bred this out completely in place of Meatlinc, which gave the conformation and shape he knew retailers were looking for.
His lambing percentage is now up to 200%, with all ewes lambed unaided. Rams are bought based on performance data only and the closed 500-ewe flock breeds all its own replacements. As a result, flock health is easily maintained and regular faecal egg counts means he only worms ewes once a year despite the high stocking density.
One of the most radical decisions Isaac took was to eliminate grass silage from the winter ration to maximise the amount of land available for grazing on his small acreage. Ewes are housed indoors from mid-December to lambing in March and fed on a concentrate diet of soya hulls, soya and wheat straw. With limited use of machinery and a highly organised housing and handling system to optimise labour input, Isaac has designed a management system that runs like clockwork.
Since the initial research project with AFBI, Isaac has collaborated on a host of other research trials, which has developed his appetite for record keeping and measurement. He now knows exactly what he needs to be aiming for when selling and marketing his lambs.
It is a trait that got him to where he is today as one of the top-performing sheep farmers in Northern Ireland, delivering 592kg/ha of lamb carcass weight and a gross margin of £70 a ewe.
Ninety percent are sold at U grade, with a few E and R grades, at an average deadweight of 19kg. Lambs are bred for length and loin as he believes big legs of lamb are too pricey for modern consumers.
- – 500 Belclare cross Suffolk ewes put to Meatlinc rams
- – 28ha of grazing
- – Producing 592kg/ha of lamb carcass weight
“The better the conformation, the more it squeezes up, the shorter the loin and the less desirable it is for the retailer,” says Isaac. His close relationship with both processor and retailer is something he is entirely comfortable with.
“Far too often farmers stand back and scald retailers, but since I have started working directly with them it has changed my business. The access to people and new ideas has opened a huge number of doors to me and I would not be here without them,” he says.
Isaac is passionate about sharing his learning with the industry and has been on the Agrisearch Lamb Group for 10 years supporting the involvement of sheep farmers in production-oriented research and is also part of the Sainsbury’s Lamb Steering Group. To date he has hosted more than 1,000 farmers – some travelling from as far as New Zealand and Australia.
“Knowledge transfer is the key to developing this industry. We need real farms to be producing and sharing real data, not just research and trial farms,” he says.
“We have progressed so much in our thinking it now seems crazy what we used to talk about 10 years ago. We were amateurs.”
Newton Farm, Brecon, Powys
Richard and Helen Roderick have transformed a beleaguered pig farm into a sustainable sheep operation set to be around for generations to come.
The mixed sheep, beef and arable farm has grown from 90ha in 1989 to 260ha today through a sheep flock that can scale up and down to market conditions.
They have done this through a heads-up approach to farming, growing a complementary mix of enterprises and grabbing every opportunity that comes their way.
The Rodericks have overseen wholesale change on the slopes of the Usk Valley in Powys, taking on a variety of extra land for a grazing and forage base that will support Richard’s vision for efficient grass-fed lamb production.
The judges liked
- – Business with clear direction and opportunity to grow
- – Healthy relationship with processors and retailers
- – Use of alternative forage crops
- – Supporting development of young farmers through mentoring scheme
- – Working to de-risk business in a volatile market
More than 100ha of old grass leys have been improved with new swards and clover mixes to more efficiently finish lambs to market specification. The result is a business now regularly returning a profit of 20%.
They started with Suffolk cross Mules in the 1990s, breeding fat lambs for the export trade, but after experimenting with tagging and recording, they secured a deal with Waitrose and have not looked back since.
The 1,000-ewe flock now consists predominantly of black face Suffolk and Texel cross Mule ewes, crossed with a Charollais ram delivering a lambing percentage of 186%, with 91% of lambs meeting the market specification of 19kg deadweight. More recently they have started introducing Aberfield rams, which they see as the future for the genetics of their flock, driving greater proflicacy while maintaining good growth rates off grass.
Helen’s background in accountancy and Richard’s entrepreneurial flair means the appetite to be a trailblazer is tempered with a healthy dose of realism.
“If currency stays where it is we are going to be getting a double whammy of less support and less export, so we have to explore new ideas and methods to keep the business sustainable,” says Richard.
The Rodericks are in good shape to ride out the current trough in prices. After more than 15 years supplying Waitrose through Dalehead, Richard has developed a healthy relationship with the retailer and processor and is now actively pushing for innovative forward lamb contracts to reduce the threat of volatile lamb prices on the business.
- – 1,000 Suffolk and Texel cross Mule ewes
- – 260ha farm in a mixture of grazing, silage and cereal units
- – 70 Stabiliser suckler cows
Maximising grass production to reduce the reliance on concentrate feed is another area where Richard has proved adept at setting his business up for the future.
“Making good forage is one of the most important things we can do.” The only thing we have control of is our costs so we are going to have to do an awful lot more with less,” says Richard.
“Historically we used to feed far too much cake and pellets, but now we are reorganising our system to optimise forage production,” he says. This has included changing the rotations to bring silage blocks closer to home and investing in a forage wagon to reduce reliance on contractors.
In 2014 they initiated a grazing trial though Farming Connect introducing 8ha of plantain, chicory and clover mixes into the rotation. They have already seen the benefit of a greater carrying capacity, reduced finishing costs and faster recovery times.
The Rodericks have scaled up their business by making the most of the cards they were dealt. The farm’s legacy as a pig unit means an abundance of sheds, which has driven them to integrate their housing system and silage clamps to reduce labour costs.
The two silage clamps are sited in the centre of each shed providing four faces from which the flock can gradually work their way through the ration. This means one person can feed 1,000 ewes without using any machinery.
This gives them time to manage the 70 stabiliser suckler cows fattened each year and the 22ha of cereals grown for feed, all of which support their rotational grazing system.
The farm has been in a range of environmental schemes since 2000. Wildlife meadows now cover their less favoured land and they have planted 6,000 trees on the farm since 2012.
With three sons as their successors, all the decisions Helen and Richard make are about setting the business up for the future. “Sheep are easy to quickly scale-up and we will soon be rearing our own replacements and lambing-off ewe lambs to expand,” says Richard.
It is not just their business they are developing a future for. Richard has also mentored more than 20 young farmers as part of a Welsh government scheme.
Sheep Farmer of the Year is sponsored by Dunbia
“The finalists have shown innovation and a vision for the future of sheep farming that is exceptional. As the largest processor of lambs in the UK, Dunbia is proud that our industry is led by such forward-thinking producers.”
Jim Dobson, group chief executive