How Oxfordshire sheep farmers cut cost of production by 12%

Access to cover crops for winter grazing on nearby arable land has resulted in a 10% uplift in lambing percentage and helped to reduce finishing times by three weeks at Manor Farm, Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire.

Winter grazing ewes on mustard and oats, followed by turnips and kale instead of grass, has led to improved ewe body condition, better spring grass production, milkier ewes and improved lamb growth.

This strategy is just one part of Sam and Charlotte Clarke’s refreshed forage outlook, which has helped reduce their cost of production by 12%.

At the same time, they have made substantial efforts to improve permanent pasture by over-seeding with clover or planting multi-species or grass and white clover leys (see box).

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Stocking rates have subsequently more than doubled from 7.4 ewes with twins/ha on permanent pasture to 17 ewes with twins/ha on the completely reseeded leys.

This, along with moving from set stocking to rotational mob grazing – an intensive rotational grazing system with high stocking rates – has boosted lamb production from 13.32 lambs/ha on permanent pasture to 32.68 lambs/ha on newly sown leys.

Farm Facts: Manor Farm, Steeple Aston

  • 265ha permanent pasture, 60ha enhanced clover leys, 12ha herbal leys, 80ha mustard and oats and 120ha stubble turnips and kale.
  • 30ha on Charlotte’s grandfather’s farm in an FBT.
  • A flock: 250 Texel cross Mules put to a Texel tup (Clanfield Texels tups).
  • B flock: 300 NC Mules put to a Texel tup (Clanfield Texels tups).
  • 500 Scotch Blackface and 500 Easy Care ewe lambs managed on an annual rearing contract.

Rotational grazing

The rotational mob grazing system is based on grass plate meter readings, with stock managed in paddocks of no less than 2ha, split up with electric fencing.

Lambs on Manor Farm

© Aly Balsom

Ewes and lambs generally enter a paddock at 2,200kg DM/ha and graze down to 1,500kg DM/ha, with grazing periods dictated by grass growth rates.

Changing grazing strategy

The decision to reassess forage management came about in 2015, when the couple chose to over-seed some land with white clover.

Historically, slow pasture growth rates had meant only a small number of lambs could be sold finished, with most leaving the farm as stores. However, the improved leys resulted in a marked uplift in performance.

Mrs Clarke recalls: “The lambs were bigger and many could have been sold fat rather than as stores. We’ve changed strategy as a result of that.”

Improving pasture

To date, 75% of land not in environmental restrictions has been improved using a cheap establishment method of a seeder mounted on a set of grass harrows, followed by a flat roller.

Their location in a prime arable area has worked in the couples’ favour, reducing competition for land and creating opportunities to increase land area since they started the business in 2012.

Collaborating with arable farmers

Forging relationships with arable farmers has also proved beneficial, with access to winter grazing on arable land proving a significant step in improving performance.

Traditionally, ewes would have been grazed over winter on grass and supplemented with haylage and mineral licks.

Farmers Sam and Charlotte Clarke in a sheep paddock with their baby

Sam and Charlotte Clarke © Aly Balsom

However, about three years ago the Clarkes were approached by arable farmer James Price of Perdiswell Farm, Woodstock, who was looking for sheep to graze his mustard and oat cover crops used to meet greening rules and help improve soil organic matter.

A second arable farm also offered to grow turnips and kale.

How the arable rotation works

As a result, 7kg/ha of mustard and 20kg/ha of oats are now drilled into 80ha of standing wheat in July. The kale (2kg/ha) and stubble turnips (4kg/ha) are drilled around the same time. The wheat is then harvested, with ewes arriving in August to graze the mustard and oats.

The flock is paddock grazed with electric fences and stocked at a minimum of 24 ewes/ha to keep on top of the crop’s rapid growth. Rams are then turned out in early October, and the ewes move on to the kale and turnips in December, when the mustard has been killed off following the first frost.

The benefits

Mrs Clarke says there are numerous benefits to grazing ewes on arable land. “The ground is clean so you’re not moving worm burdens around,” she says. “And the permanent pasture doesn’t have to carry the ewes through the winter so where the ground is heavy, it won’t get poached.”

Ewes also don’t need to be supplemented with haylage while grazing the crop, which saves on forage costs. Sheep are also generally about 0.5-1 body condition score better on the mustard compared with grazing on grass.

Overall, the combination of having ewes in better condition, together with moving on to improved pasture, has reduced average finishing times from 15 to 12 weeks. The first draw this year was taken at 12 weeks, with the latest batch averaging 36-42kg live weight and sold through Rugby market. All lambs except orphans are finished on forage only.

Herbal ley trial boosts growth rates

  • Trial is part of LAMBPAR project run by AHDB Beef & Lamb and Germinal looking at the role of sheep in arable rotations.
  • 12ha arable field split in two, planted with a herbal mix including intermediate diploid perennial ryegrasses, timothy, chicory, white clover, red clover and plantain, or intermediate and late perennial ryegrass plus white clover.
  • Each half was then split in two, with ewes and twins rotating between the two paddocks in either the multi-species or grass and clover sections./li>
  • Ewes stocked at 17/ha.
  • Lambs on multi-species leys weighed an average 0.8kg more at eight weeks than those on the grass and clover.
  • Multi-species ley coped well in drought, continuing to grow due to different rooting depths, when grass and clover was burnt off.
  • The Clarkes plan to plant more multi-species leys to help cope with drought and get lambs away quicker.
  • Grazing is likely to help arable farmers improve organic matter and break black grass cycle.

Lamb 8-week weights on herbal leys versus grass leys (2018)





Herbal ley




Grass ley