Benefit from self-caring sheep

When Lancashire hill farmer Joey Drinkall starts selling his first prime lambs of the season next month he would like to be getting £50 apiece for them to make up for the shortfall in ewe premium.

He doubts the trade will be so generous, but he is convinced his Lonk ewes will at least ensure costs of production are kept to a minimum.

His 1666ha (4000-acre) Manor House Farm – which includes 1500ha (3600 acres) of fell land – stands at 1000ft on Anglezarke Moor, near Chorley and carries 1800-2000 Lonk ewes as well as a few Cheviot x Lonks.

The Drinkall family has had the flock for 100 years and remains convinced this big-framed hill breed is unbeatable for grazing the white-bent moor.

“They are a grass sheep and not a heather sheep, but they’re unbelievably hardy.

If they have a fault it’s that they won’t even eat hay when we put it out in bad weather,” says Mr Drinkall.

In fact the breed’s reluctance to eat anything other than grass – beyond nibbling mineral blocks before lambing-time in mid-April – ensures costs are kept at rock bottom.

Apart from blocks, ewes thrive off grass all year round and all lambs are sold finished from August to May, with none receiving any trough feeding whatsoever.

“We only leave 900 ewes on the hill in winter to meet stewardship scheme requirements; the rest are grazed on lower land either rented or on-tack.

And it’s the same for lambs; they can be spread across nine different holdings during winter.”

The system is time consuming, but the farm employs 2.5 full-time men; sorting and selling lambs keeps them busy all winter.

And, by having a wide range of grazings in terms of grass quality, Mr Drinkall is able to stagger his lamb marketing to maintain a weekly draw of 40-100 lambs throughout the season.

The target weight for all lambs is 40kg, although late spring hoggets will reach 50kg; last spring’s best made 64.

About 1200 Lonks are bred pure, with the rest put to Suffolk, Texel and Charollais tups.

All drafts are sold as three-crop ewes.

“No matter what you put on a Lonk they will produce a good lamb with an exceptionally tight skin.

We sell everything liveweight and good-skinned lambs off hill ewes are popular with buyers.”

The flock’s lambing percentage of 140% is high enough for the farm.

“We don’t want too many twins on this sort of hard, fell land,” says Mr Drinkall.

Away-wintering 900 ewes means a block of 250ha (600 acres) of lower land at Manor House Farm can be kept free of stock throughout winter and be ready to take ewes when they come home just before lambing.

“Lonks look after themselves and that means costs are kept low.

I’m putting the SFP away.

I’m not supporting any loss of sheep premium with it, but at least with Lonks on this sort of system I am not facing heavy bought-in feed bills for ewes or for finishing lambs.”

After the best lambs are drawn straight off ewes in August, the rest are weaned in September and the most forward are sent to better land to keep them growing.

Managing lambs away from the farm during winter and ensuring a regular supply reach a marketable weight each week can be tricky, but Mr Drinkall has developed a system that works.

“I could sell 80% of lambs as stores before November for 30 apiece.

Or, if I pushed them hard, I could get more away finished by January.

But I don’t want that because costs would be higher.

“If I could run them all as stores until later in winter and then fatten them from February onwards that would be ideal, but it is not practical.

Some might look at these lambs – which come off the fell in pretty lean condition – and sell them as stores.

“But the Lonk produces lambs ideal for our situation and our finishing system.

Lambs have a big frame and can be ticked-over until we are ready to move them up a gear and target as many as we can at the higher priced late winter and spring hogget market.”