Farmers Weekly Awards 2023: Sheep Farmer of the Year

David and Cora Cooper of Tardoes Farm, Ayrshire, are the 2023 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year winners.

A need to make healthy profits each year to cover a mortgage and buy ground has driven David and Cora Cooper to devise one of the lowest-input sheep systems in Great Britain.

The Cooper’s Herdwick and Welsh Mountain ewes live off grazed grass only – there is no bought-in feed or preserved forage used.

See also: Farmers Weekly Awards 2023: Sheep Farmer of the Year finalists

Farm facts

  • 3,400 ewes
  • Welsh Mountain and Herdwick ewes and small Welsh Badger Face flock
  • 700 hoggs
  • 2,023ha
  • 90% of farm is rough hill ground
  • 1,500ha in nature agreements
  • 900ha of peatland restoration
  • Away wintering 1,400 lambs
  • Small pure Herdwick stud flock
  • Breeding females sold annually
  • Late April and May lambing

Growing up in Devon on a tenant farm, David moved to Tardoes in 2004 at age 17, when grazing rights changed on Dartmoor and 350 of his family’s sheep no longer had a home.

He started farming in partnership with his family, but soon had the confidence to go it alone.

The east Ayrshire hills were a tough but relatively affordable area in which to acquire land, and David set to work to breed hardy, maternal sheep that, alongside a contract fencing business, could service his debt.

With his wife Cora, David now farms 10 times the land and sheep he started with, having bought several large blocks of adjoining hill and in-bye ground.

Reclaimed opencast coal mining ground has been regenerated by erecting 100km of fencing, liming, and rotationally grazing on two- to three-day shifts.

Time

Having three young children means time is precious. David and Cora are 50:50 directors in the businesses, employing local 17-year-old shepherd Cody Gibson full-time across both enterprises.

A key reason the sheep require such low inputs is because of the policy to breed only from single-bearing ewes. These have a lower challenge and energy demand, explains David.

The only regular inputs the singles get is a clostridial vaccination, two flock doses (scanning and dipping), shearing and a trace element bolus. Ewes carrying twins get a second bolus at scanning.

A key part of the system is wintering 700 wethers and 700 replacement ewe hoggs off-farm near Dumfries, so that ground can be deferred for winter grazing, he says.

About 130km of peatland grips (ditches) have been blocked using a digger bucket to create a dam every 10m.

This gives sheep a place to cross the ditch and slows water flow to the river.

This has reduced black loss from 400 to fewer than 50 sheep a year, halved gathering time to three hours and sequestered an additional 7,500t of carbon dioxide.

Profit

Machinery costs are shared with the fencing business, which takes two to three days a week through the year on average.

The Coopers have two quad bikes, a buggy, a manitou, an 8t digger and post driver, but no tractor.

The sheep operation has a combi-clamp, tailing chute, electronic broadcaster for clover seeds, lime spreader and mobile handling system.

Despite having a stocking rate of 1.2 ewes/ha on 1,500ha (3,707 acres) of the farm and a production of 65kg liveweight/ha, the Coopers achieve an 80% gross margin on turnover.

Income has been boosted by sales of breeding ewes and by lifting lamb carcass weight from 12.5kg to 15kg by using a Logie Durno terminal sire on 800 ewes from fifth crop onwards.

Value has been added with named-breed premiums through MacDuffs, including sales of Welsh Mountain hogget, and Welsh Badger Face lamb, hogget and mutton to London restaurants. 

Winning ways

  • Very low-cost system makes a resilient business model
  • Hugely driven to involve people in their business and ensure they influence organisations around them
  • Large margin created from low fixed costs and limited machinery
  • Working hard to improve peatland ecosystem and add value to lamb sales and breeding stock

A word from our independent judge

“David and Cora Cooper have developed a profitable and resilient sheep system that suits their land, labour resources and family. They operate a system that is fit for the future of sheep farming in the UK.”

Moira Gallagher, farm consultant at SAC Consulting

The Farmers Weekly 2023 Sheep Farmer of the Year is sponsored by Shearwell DataShearwell logo

The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British agriculture by recognising hard-working and innovative farmers across the UK.

Find out more about the Awards, the categories and sponsorship opportunities on our Awards website.

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