Reducing feed costs to an absolute minimum by running productive grassland systems and doing everything in their power to farm in a low-input way is a key theme linking all three of this year’s Sheep Farmer of the Year finalists.
Neil Perkins, Dinas Island Farm, Pembrokeshire
Becoming a Nuffield Scholar and travelling to New Zealand to study “low-cost, intensive sheep production” has been instrumental to the way Neil Perkins and his wife Andrea run their 1,600-ewe lowland grassland farm on the National Trust tenanted farm near Newport, Pembrokeshire.
Neil says his “eureka moment” about how to run a low-cost sheep system came when he was on a sheep farm in New Zealand. “I knew the secret was going to be good grassland management and selecting the right breed. So on my return I set about implementing a six-year strategy to create my ultimate low-cost system.”
As his first step, Neil decided to get rid of the beef and cereal enterprise and focus solely on sheep. This gave him the chance to start improving the grassland by reseeding with clover rich leys and correcting P+K levels.
“I also switched to pure Lleyns, purchasing 300 initially with the aim of converting the whole flock. Lleyns were chosen to maximise kilograms of lamb production per acre of grass,” he says.
And six years down the line Neil has almost reached his goal. By embracing EID, with all pure Lleyn lambs EID tagged at birth, and by performance-recording, he is well on his way to creating an elite nucleus flock. Two flocks are run at Dinas Island; Neil keeps the best ewes to breed from for pure replacements with ewes in the second flock mated to Primera tups for fat lamb production.
His eventual dream is to build up the female Lleyn side so he can sell elite females that will be an added-value market. However, the bread-and-butter of the business is fat lambs. All fat lambs are sold by eight months old, every one fattened off grass with no concentrates. Target conformation is R grade, which 80% of lambs achieve. In 2007 the gross margin per lamb was £32.27, giving an enterprise margin of £78,700 before single farm payment.
Neil has demonstrated he can survive without subsidy investing two year’s worth of subsidy money in to a brand new shed. “My whole ethos is to be in the top third of producers and to survive without subsidy. Hopefully this way, if I am as efficient as I can, I should be able to ride the wave should market prices drop significantly or the SFP goes.”
And he is always one step ahead. Neil has been breeding for the myomax gene with the aim of increasing the yield of meat to bone and producing a better, more marketable carcase. The gene is now estimated to be in 70% of the flock. “I firmly believe that if video image analysing is introduced to the UK for sheep I will be ready to benefit from the advantages,” he says.
Grassland management is the prime factor of this low-cost system. Dinas Island operates a rotational grazing system with 25 acre paddocks split into two 12 acres. Red and white clover is relied on for protein and nitrogen fixing and high sugar grasses are included to boost energy and chicory to aid drought resistance. All grassland is aerated annually and minimal nitrogen is used with only a sulphur-based phase release fertiliser applied at the start of spring to kick-start growth. Flock health is also paramount to this low-cost system, with faecal egg monitoring allowing targeted worming where necessary and lameness levels kept to a minimum.
Beyond the technical aspects of the farm, the Perkins are all for educating consumers by hosting regular school and farm visits, helping other farmers and working for the environment. He has been a HCC demonstration farm, is current chairman of NFU county livestock and sits on the NSA’s Cymru policy committee. “I have a philosophy not to moan about what is going on in the industry. If there is a problem then let’s work together to resolve it.”
A word from our sponsor
Morrisons are delighted to sponsor Sheep Farmer of the Year. We are committed to working with British farmers and proud to be the only major supermarket sourcing and selling 100% fresh British meat and poultry. Through the Morrisons Farming Programme we are working to build a sustainable industry.”
Louise Welsh, Morrisons
2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash