4 changes a young farmer made to family sheep farm

When young farmer Catherine Sanderson was gifted a third of her grandparents’ farming business, she knew she wanted to help drive it forward without stepping on their toes.

Grandparents Ken and Dorothy Garbutt were keen to stay at Manor Farm, Scawton, North Yorkshire, having bought it in 1970.

Manor Farm facts

  • 24ha farm in North York Moors National Park
  • Running 200 sheep – Texels and Swales and some Texel cross Berrichons
  • In mid-tier stewardship
  • Ms Sanderson was gifted a third of the business by her grandparents Mr and Mrs Garbutt
  • The business also contains a holiday let.

The 24ha farm was a dairy until 1999 when they replaced the cows with 100 breeding Texels.

Mr Garbutt wasn’t ready to give up farming, but managing the stock, as well as a holiday let, was a tall order so they decided to invite granddaughter Catherine into the partnership.

Ms Sanderson became a partner four years ago after finishing her agriculture degree at Newcastle University.

See also: 6 tips on aiding succession on your farm

She had worked with sheep on various farms while at uni and at her parent’s National Trust hill farm in Bransdale and was keen continue.

Although she didn’t have extensive plans for Manor Farm, she knew changes were needed to maximise profits.

Ms Sanderson says: “My grandparents were willing to listen, and we would sit down and discuss things. It helped them coming from a dairy background as they are forward thinking and open to investing in things.”

Ms Sanderson’s main aim was to get the foundation right before making any radical changes. Below she talks about what key changes she has made to the business so far. 

Increased sheep numbers and changed breeds

One of the first things Ms Sanderson suggested doing was to double sheep numbers to 200 and introduce new breeds.

She had to take on some extra grazing on a six-month summer grazing agreement to do this.

Traditionally, Mr Garbutt had been crossing the Texel to a Lleyn for easy lambing.

However, they decided to go back to pure Texel to get a better carcass.

To aid lambing in shearlings, Ms Sanderson decided to bring 12 of her own Berrichons and started using the tup on the Texel shearlings. They also began selecting Texels with smaller heads.

Ms Sanderson says: “My grandad had used Charollais for easy lambing, but they are not as hardy. The Berrichon has a better wool cover, is easy lambing and has a good, meaty carcass.”

Swaledales were also introduced because, with limited shed space and the farm at 170m above sea level in the North York Moors National Park, the breed fitted well.

Fifty Swaledales were bought, with numbers built up to 100 by retaining replacements. All Texels are fattened to about 42kg liveweight and sold through Thirsk market from October to February.

Most are finished off grass but others are inside on cake and silage. Swaledale store lambs, wethers and gimmers are sold at Wombleton Sheep Fair, near Helmsley.

Mules are sold as stores in September as there isn’t the room to finish them and Mule gimmers are sold for breeding.

Applied for mid-tier stewardship

When Ms Sanderson joined the business, an Entry Level Stewardship agreement was just ending.

She decided to apply for a Mid-Tier Stewardship contract because the farm falls into a non-severely disadvantaged area , meaning payments are higher.

As part of the agreement legumes and herb-rich leys have been planted, an acre has been left to go wild, hedge cutting has been reduced and some low-input grasslands have been set aside.

The mid-tier scheme is worth about £1,200/year. Overseeding with plantain and sainfoin, rather than ploughing in the shallow soil depth, is also under consideration.

Land dries out quickly, so they are hoping the deep-rooting varieties will reduce the grass burn-off.

Ms Sanderson says: “It’s a long-term plan to help deal with climate change issues. If dry summers become more frequent, we need to try to reduce the impact on the already dry farm.”

Focused on sheep health

Traditionally sheep have been wormed routinely, according to the time of year. However, in 2018 Ms Sanderson took part in sheep management sessions under the NSA’s Young Ambassador programme.

“We visited a farm that was faecal egg counting and worming based on results,” she says.

She also visited a farm that recorded all deaths at lambing on a blackboard and she took part in a course on conducting post-mortems.

Ms Sanderson has now bought a faecal egg counting kit and introduced a recording system using a whiteboard at lambing.

In 2018, the recording system highlighted losses of 17.8% in the Texels and 17.3% in the Swales between scanning and weaning.

Follow-up tests identified enzootic abortion and toxoplasmosis. “Last year, we vaccinated for abortion and losses dropped to 6.4% in the Texels and 5.9% in the Swales,” Ms Sanderson says.

“I am also doing faecal egg count samples every three to four weeks during the spring and summer and use it as a [worming] guide,” she adds.

Ms Sanderson also attended a workshop organised by her local vets on antibiotics use and managing watery mouth. Previously all lambs were given antibiotics.

But last year only triplets and twin lambs born to thin ewes received antibiotics in case colostrum supply was limited. Zero watery mouth cases has given them the confidence to reduce antibiotics at lambing further.

Invested in new kit

The business has invested in a combi clamp, which all three partners say has been a great investment.

Before the clamp, all sheep would be wormed in a pen, now they just run the sheep through the race, making procedures such as worming and checking feet a lot quicker, easier and safer.

The future

Ms Sanderson believes the foundation of the business is almost there and is making a gross margin per ewe of £65. In the future she may look to expand and is also considering adding value to the stock by possibly butchering and marketing lambs.

Ms Sanderson continues to work on the farm and contract milks for local farmers.

Key tips on a successful family partnership

  • Go into it gradually. Mrs Garbutt says: “Let them try new ideas but start off by making small changes. If it works, then that helps build up the trust.”
  • Communication is key. Mrs Garbutt adds: “We discuss things all the time over coffee. It is important everyone is aware what is going on.”
  • Go and find opportunities. Ms Sanderson says: “The opportunities are there, but you have got to find them. Get to know local farmers in your area, go to meetings and get involved in things like the NSA Young Ambassadors.”
  • Make sure you are farming what you want and pick a breed you like as well as one that suits your system.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Learn from each other. Ms Sanderson says: “My grandma takes a lot of pride in the animals and has a very keen eye for spotting anything that isn’t right. I’ve learnt that from her. Grandad is very good at encouraging me and trying new things.”