Sheep switch that pays

A total change in direction is drastic, but may provide answers in terms of profitability.

Moving into sheep production would be most arable farmers’ worst nightmare, but for a Cambridgeshire unit faced with losing half its land it was a simple choice.

Among the vast array of golden arable fields nestles a farm which has used the advent of SFP to look at its business carefully and switch production from arable to sheep.

Not only is this projected to bring profitable returns, it is already having rewards on family life.

Old Weston-based David Fortescue made the switch in 2005, after the loss of 95ha (235 acres) due to retirement of an owner whose farm the family contracted.

“Continuing to crop our own remaining 110ha (270 acres) didn’t make sense.

We knew there had to be something better.

With an ageing machinery fleet, replacement wasn’t viable or possible, so we had to look around.

Flock expansion

“We have run 200 ewes for a number of years, so it made sense to expand the flock and concentrate on making it pay.”

Budgeting on ewes rearing at 150% and stocking at 10/ha (4/acre) it was projected that turning over to sheep would provide about the same output as arable.

“But this would be without a large proportion of the fuel and input costs,” adds Mr Fortescue, who runs the farm alongside his wife and father, Penny and Richard, with the help of retired farmer Norman Roberts.

The transition period was difficult, with machinery required for harvest and capital needed to increase ewe numbers.

“Thankfully, our bank provided us with the ability to choose animals we wanted, rather than having to wait for sufficient funds and settle for second-rate breeding stock.”

This capital allowed them to invest in extending the flock to 800 ewes, predominantly Suffolk/Mule crosses.

“These are put to a Texel tup, producing some finishing and some breeding animals which in turn we cross with Charollais tups to produce a good meat carcass,” reveals Mr Fortescue.

The Charollais cross was not a planned one.

“We kept 50 ewe lambs back during foot-and-mouth, as I refused to sell at £23 a lamb.

The following year these were put to the Charollais tup and the result was a good meat animal suited to the market.

“We employ no additional labour and so rely heavily on family and friends to get things done.

If we need help handling sheep our daughters, Anne and Sarah, chip in,” quips Mrs Fortescue.

He plays a greater part in managing the flock since the switch.

“I could drive a tractor, but if anything went wrong I would call David.

I now share a greater part of the responsibility.”

Initial investment includes a polytunnel for housing ewes at lambing.

“We looked at erecting a purpose-built shed, but the investment was too large.

A specialised polytunnel provided enough shelter for 200 ewes and this year it was invaluable for mothering up in wet weather.”

Lambing is staggered into three groups – 200-300 lambed in late January/early February; 500 in March; and ewe lambs in April – which means labour is kept steady enough for the family to manage with some help with pens and putting out.

24-hour lambing

“With ewes scanning at 175%, it is essential to have someone lambing 24 hours a day,” adds Mr Fortescue.

“In the future, when we extend numbers to 1000, we may require extra help at lambing time, but for the time being we are sufficient.”

A mobile handling system has made management easier and plans include buying a grass harrow and seeder to continually improve the eight-year ley drilled last year.

“Now the blackgrass burden has been relieved, we plan to introduce white clover to the mix to get more balanced leys in terms of forage and in turn decrease fertiliser reliance.”

Using different marketing options, the Fortescue’s look at prices before committing.

“We supply 10 lambs a week to the local butcher from early June until January, but with staggering lambing we will try to maintain a steady flow throughout the year.”

Working in Thrapston Market every Thursday allows Mr Fortescue to keep a close eye on prices before selling lambs which do not go the butcher.

“We are £10 a carcass up on this time last year receiving £52 a lamb.”