A progressive approach to flock health, combined with hard work and savvy marketing, has seen a Lincolnshire couple expand their sheep business and income.
Chris and Louise Elkington of Gelston, near Grantham, run a flock of 450 after starting out with just two pet sheep 10 years ago.
They have diversified with a lamb catering business, Gelston Lamb, which they started in 2014 and by selling direct to the consumer.
Their flock of mainly Lleyns and Roussin Mules is also helping local arable farmers, with sheep providing organic matter and a break in the arable rotation.
The Lleyns are wintered on 20ha of turnips on one arable farm while the crossbreds graze grassland on two other arable units for low/free rents.
Gelston Farm Facts
- 450 crossbred sheep combining Lleyn, Roussin Mules and North of England Mules
- 45ha of grassland, all rented
- 28ha of wintering ground rented each year
- Make 8ha of haylage annually
- Lambs sold direct through Gelston Lamb or to Dunbia on a deadweight contract
- Ewe lambs bred to Roussin tups
The couple met through Young Farmers in 2008 and in 2010 they bought 30 North of England Mule gimmer lambs at the Hawes sale for £80 a head, to add to a small hobby flock.
Another 30 lambs were bought the following year and the flock slowly grew.
In 2016 they bought 200 Lleyn ewes from a breeder in Rutland when Mrs Elkington’s father passed away, meaning they had the opportunity to rent 45ha of the family arable farm.
Since then at least 50 lambs have been retained annually and about 50 Lleyn-cross Aberfields have been bought in from a friend. Last year the flock was closed, and they will retain replacements to grow to 650 head.
The 45ha grazing block is used for lambing and summer grazing and is in its third year of a mid-tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which has funded most of the fencing (£4.60/m), gates and water infrastructure in a grassland reversion scheme.
Sheep are stocked at four ewes/acre (10 ewes/ha) through the summer and then wintered across 28ha of ground on three nearby arable units behind electric fencing.
The 450 sheep are split into a flock of 300 Lleyns and Aberfields lambing outdoors and a mixed flock of 150 Roussin Mules and North of England Mules that lamb indoors.
Two flocks are used to try to hit the early deadweight market and also produce lambs through the summer for catering and outdoor events.
Mule, Lleyn and Roussin-cross Mules form the maternal base of the flock, with Roussin and Charollais terminal sires used on both flocks and Lleyns used to breed replacements on the outdoor lambing flock.
All tups are bought from performance recorded, commercially focused systems. The Roussin provides hybrid vigour and a versatile cross capable of UL grade lambs that are lively at birth.
Flock management at Gelston Lamb
Last year the Elkingtons sold 100 whole lambs for freezers, 60 lambs through a catering enterprise and 300 lambs deadweight, with 90 ewe lambs retained.
Lambs are butchered at a site 20 minutes away from the farm, although a small home butchery is planned, which would allow the Elkingtons to target the pub trade and sell more lambs in freezer boxes.
Burger flavour and quality are achieved through mincing whole lambs, which achieves a higher price than selling an £80 prime lamb, although Mr Elkington stresses it’s not all profit.
“The cooking cost, butchery, labour, bread bun, VAT and the pitch at the event are all to pay for,” he explains.
Mr Elkington still does a lot of off-farm work contracting and harvesting. “So, while it’s a good diversification, the £4 a burger is certainly not all profit.”
Gelston Lamb: Three outlets
Catering 45kg lambs are minced whole to make 150 burgers, sold at £4 a burger, usually out of marquees at country shows, carnivals, Young Farmers Club rallies, music concerts and private functions.
A minty burger and a Moroccan burger are currently on offer, with an upmarket burger with relish currently in the pipeline. Lamb sausages are also sold at events.
Boxed lamb Whole lambs are usually sold at £140 including free delivery, with lambs drawn at 42-45kg.
Deadweight Most lambs go to Dunbia on an 18-22kg specification, with lambs drawn from 39kg liveweight.
Tips on direct-selling lamb
- Use social media Twitter is great for connecting with other farmers and Facebook can be used to market and sell lambs locally. Apart from a bit of time and effort, it’s free to do with a good internet connection.
- Have a brand Something simple like Gelston Lamb works by giving the product an identity and a sense of place. Clothing and banners at events help make a lasting impression.
- Butchery A nearby butchery that you trust is important to ensure supply can meet demand at busy times of year and a consistent product is achieved.
- Vary your product Paying £140 for a lamb doesn’t suit all customers. A £4 burger is more affordable and a great way to tempt people in and get your brand known.
- Use events Selling lamb burgers/sausages at events has helped Gelston Lamb expand its customer base and get important feedback.