How a Cumbrian farm saved £18 a ewe

A complete change of mindset has seen a Cumbrian farm halve variable costs a ewe tupped from £34 to £16.53 in just five years.  

Paul and Nicola Renison moved to Cannerheugh Farm, Renwick, in the summer of 2012 and have been trying out new ideas ever since.

In a good year, the Renisons can now spend nothing on fertiliser and feed, instead relying purely on homegrown forage and composted muck from a dairy heifer rearing enterprise.

Even in last year’s challenging conditions, grassland inputs amounted to just two tonnes of fertiliser and feed costs were £3,200 for turnips and concentrate. 

“Some years we look at the accounts and see zeros for fertiliser and feed,” says Mr Renison. “Last year was hard, however, and we needed to buy feed to get through it.”

See also: How a farmer reduced prolapses with a self-feed silage system

Farm facts

  • 141ha in Higher Level and Countryside Stewardship
  • 670 ewes
  • 100.5 livestock units at 1.4LSU/ha
  • 25 Stabiliser cows put to Angus
  • 52ha of rough upland grazing
  • 5-6ha of woodland
  • 70 dairy heifers reared on contract
  • Lambs sold store (average £49 last year), deadweight and liveweight.

System changes

Mr Renison, who is from the Wirral, first cut his teeth in shepherding in the Lake District, becoming a farm manager in Patterdale on the Matson Ground estate.

He then continued farming traditionally at Cannerheugh. Sheep were set-stocked and fed bagged cake for six weeks pre-lambing.

The Renisons lambed 400 sheep in 2013 and built flock numbers up to 1,100 head by 2015, with Swaledale ewes lambed outside in April and the crossbreds lambed inside in March.

However, with a mortgage to pay, costs were mounting and the Renisons began looking for inspiration. 

They garnered a wealth of knowledge from Northumberland farmers Duncan Nelles and Alan Cowan, US farmer Joel Salatin, and Richard Perkins, who farms in Sweden.

This led them to make the following changes in 2014-15:

  • Started rotational grazing
  • Started faecal egg counting
  • Switched to outdoor lambing
  • Simplified flock management by selling the Swaledales and opting for Aberfield and more recently Lleyn tups
  • Reseeded underperforming ground with clover, mixed grass and mixed herbal leys
  • Slowly introduced cattle back into the system

Rotational grazing

A rotational grazing system was started in 2015 after a wedge of grass had been built up on one area of the farm. Most of the rotation is done on two- or three-day shifts.

The wedge was divided out according to a basic budget, apportioning ewes with 1.8kg of DM/day or 2.5-3% of their bodyweight (65-72kg ewe).

Using electric fencing and 13 shelter belt/woodland corridors, the farm’s 24 fields were divided into 50 paddocks, with most paddocks being 1.2ha in size.

Farmer Paul Renison with flock of sheep

Paul Renison

Stewardship money and the Woodland Trust have helped with woodland corridor and hedgerow shelterbelt creation, which provides ewes with shelter when lambing.

Blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose, holly, field maple and beech are grown to shelter ewes from the fierce “Helm wind” – thought to be the only named wind in Britain.

With every paddock requiring water and electric fencing, the farm invested about £15,000 in grazing infrastructure over four years. Sheep are now only set stocked for a month at lambing.

A key part of the grazing policy is the “golden 20 days” in November when ewes are tupped on cell grazing for 20 one-day shifts.

Soil health

  • At least 10% of farm is soil tested annually
  • Soils are low in cobalt and selenium which is supplemented to the livestock
  • Organic matter levels range from 4.3% to 9%, with 5% targeted as a minimum
  • Liming programme has lifted soil pH from 5.5-5.8 to 6-6.2
  • Timothy, cocksfoot and meadow fescue have been included to provide varied heading dates and greater rooting depths than ryegrass
  • Clover has been drilled to fix nitrogen

Outdoor lambing

Vet and med costs have fallen by £5 a ewe since outdoor lambing started and in 2018 stood at £7.86 a ewe.

This reduction has been helped by faecal egg counting between June and September. Lambs are now dosed only when necessary.

This year the flock scanned at 174% with a 2.5% empty rate. Lambing mortality in the outdoor system is 12-13% on average, compared with 7% indoors.

Young trees along a fence line

Shelter belts are essential for outdoor lambing on the edge of the Pennines

Lambing ewes are checked three times a day. One or two ewes and lambs are typically brought inside each day for 24 hours as needed.

Shelterbelts are essential for the Renisons’ outdoor lambing system and ewes often head for them when getting ready to lamb to protect their offspring.

Current flock grazing and management at Cannerheugh

January/February

  • Grass is rested by housing sheep for two to three months on ring-fed haylage.
  • Sheep are scanned, barrens sold, and the flock is given a copper, selenium and iodine bolus costing £1/ewe.
  • Ewes are split into two or three mobs at scanning. Triplet-bearing ewes and thin twins are given the best grass.
  • Closantel wormer is given for fluke.

March

  • Sheep rotationally graze the farm once by lambing time.
  • Triplet-bearing and thin twins given priority grazing.
  • Clostridial immunity booster given to ewes three weeks pre-tupping.

Lambing

  • Sheep are set stocked at 10/ha a week before lambing.
  • Lambing starts 15 April for 34 days (two cycles).

Summer

  • Ewes enter paddocks at 7-8cm grass length and leave at 3-4cm.
  • Sward stick and eye is used to gauge winter grass budgets from July onwards.
  • Lambs are weaned in July at target ewe BCS of 2.5 and finished on herbal leys.
  • Lambs are given coccidiosis doses and wormers according to FEC and weight gain.

Autumn

  • Ewes are body condition scored six weeks before tupping.
  • Mineral dose given costing £1 a ewe.
  • Any ewes below 3 BCS are put on a priority rotation to gain condition to 3-3.5 BCS.
  • Ewes are flushed on a cell grazing system from 10 November – 10 days before tupping.
  • Tups run at 100 ewes per ram for 34 days.
  • Cell grazing continues for 10 days after tups are released on 21 November, before normal rotational grazing starts again.
  • Plate metre measures grass to calculate an average farm cover and create a budget. Cover of 2,600kg DM/ha was hit last year.

How variable costs have reduced at Cannerheugh over the past five years

Year

Fertiliser/seed/spray

Feed

Vet and med £/ewe tupped

Variable cost £/ewe tupped

2014

£12,500

£17,500

£12.89

£34

2018

£3,400

£3,200

£7.86

£16.53

Future plans

The plan is to convert Cannerheugh to an organic farm run with a holistic mindset. This will mean running a more varied livestock population and will start with improving soil health. 

Sheep numbers will be cut to 500 head. Cow numbers will be increased to 100 head.

“We hope this puts the farm in a better state overall,” says Mrs Renison. “Each year the farm will be grazed 50:50 between sheep and cows, alternating each year.”

Pasture-fed chicken systems are under trial. Broilers were tried last year and will be followed by layers  this year.

Birds are fed corn and moved daily around fields, following cattle on pastures.

Deferred mob cattle grazing will be started on rough hill ground on a rotation, as part of Higher-Level Stewardship.

“I want to further improve the organic matter levels in our red sandy soil and do all grass wintering,” Mr Renison explains. “Going forward our mantra is a pasture-based mixed farming business.”

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