For Martin Chatfield the benefits of herbal leys to his sheep business are clear; quicker finishing coupled with a range of health benefits. Rebecca Jordan reports.
Martin Chatfield fell into farming 40 years ago when he bought six ducks and a farming text book. Yet he still does not consider himself a ‘serious’ farmer despite the fact his farm management system at Crossways Farm, Cheriton Bishop, Devon, is on trend with the current thinking of an increasing number of his peers as well as consumers, environmentalists and government policymakers.
“My family did not farm so I have always questioned everything I have done and read research papers before changing anything,” explains Mr Chatfield who runs 200 ewes across 16 hectares (40 acres) at Crossways Farm and 40ha (100 acres) of grass keep nearby.
However, it is his main flock of 400 ewes kept on rented ground in Crediton, which is the enterprise reaping the benefits of his inquiring mind. Lambs from this flock are finished off nothing but herbal leys. In fact, this flock - which lambs two months later than that at Crossways - are finishing lambs quicker than the home flock, despite the lambs at Crossways having creep.
The larger flock is based on 40ha (100 acres) of organic ground at Langridge Farm, Crediton, where David Govier, a second-generation organic farmer, tills 12ha (30 acres) of his 53ha (130 acres) to vegetables.
Mr Chatfield says: “I am very lucky to rent ground off David who is of the same mindset and was prepared to let me try out different grazing and cutting leys. Previously, each year, 30 acres of vegetable ground followed on from four- to five-year-old clover and ryegrass leys with the aim that the clovers introduced nitrogen to the soil prior to the vegetables.
He adds: “I had read about the benefits of deep-rooting chicory which yields well while also being a rich source of minerals and a natural anthelmintic. So we decided to include it and ended up buying a basic herbal ley mix which we either reseed or slot in. We also introduced red clover to increase protein intake.”
Seven years later and the results speak for themselves. Not only does the sheep enterprise flourish but the variety of species in the herbal ley has dramatically improved the farm’s soil structure due to the varied root structures and depths.
Mr Chatfield lambs 400 North Country Mules at Langridge between April 27 and June 3. On average, 80 per cent of the flock holds to first service.
He says: “Previously I was lambing all ewes in February which was not financially viable because we were spending too much on concentrates. About seven years ago I read about lambing in May and thought it sounded a good idea even though everyone told me it would never work. Fortunately, the organic ground came up for rent then so it was perfect timing.”
By mid-July this year the first batch of 40 finished lambs were picked at 40kg liveweight and sent to Jaspers where they killed out at 18kg deadweight. This was achieved with no inputs other than the herbal ley grazed on a paddock grazing rotation with a three-week rest before restocking.
He explains: “After the initial expense of the seed, this system is great. Anyone who has not worked with herbal leys before usually panics when the seed comes up because it does not look anything like a conventional ryegrass/clover seed bed. In fact, on another farm I rented we sowed a herbal ley and the farmer sprayed it off because he thought the seeds had not taken and the field was covered in weeds. I nearly cried.
“Because I rent all my ground I fundamentally farm without the benefit of subsidy support. Before we invested in herbal leys our concentrate and fertiliser costs were too high. Now, I can honestly say, my biggest inputs for the sheep are rent and replacements.”
Mr Chatfield no longer worms any ewes, except when the flock has a fluke infestation. And he has no need to rely only on faecal egg counts as each kill sheet from Jaspers states if internal parasites have been detected.
“Herbs such as plantain and chicory are proven to help control worm burden. This is true because the kill sheets are not showing any worm problems in either our lambs or cull ewes,” he says.
“And I do not need to buy-in mineral or vitamin supplements any longer as a variety of deep-rooting species deliver these to the stock. Blood testing ewes pre-lambing has proved this. And as this is a dry area they also provide grazing because they draw moisture deeper within the topsoil than grasses which have a shallower root system. I have recently decided to include grass varieties such as Timothy and cocksfoot into the ley because they provide growth later and earlier in the season, respectively, hence extending the ley’s seasonal grazing potential.”
Mr Chatfield warns it takes a little work to establish a successful herbal ley. Chicory must be about 10cm high before introducing stock. At this stage other seed roots will also be established to cope with grazing. And it is important never to graze chicory too tight to avoid damaging its crown.
He adds: “Do not worry if you cannot see much grass, it will come the following year. And weeds such as lambs’ tongue and redshank are only annuals. If you find they have taken over, top it. What you top off soon vanishes back into the ground.
“When you do first let in the stock, graze it down – do not raze it. We also cut ours if the chicory is bolting and average about five bales/acre at 18-19 per cent protein so it makes tremendous feed. Any ground we are going to cut has 126kg/ha of 20:10:10 in the spring. Because the clover comes later in the year that dose of nitrogen does not affect its growth or vigour.”
Four years ago Mr Chatfield implemented the same grazing practice at Crossways.
“With the growth rates we were achieving off herbal leys at David’s it was a no brainer,” he says.
“Our costs were slashed, flock health improved without the over-use of wormers or supplements and lambs finished quicker.”
Lambs on both farms are weaned at eight weeks old and take priority so are rotated over that year’s reseeded ground. At Crossways the last finished lambs are gone by the second week in August and those at Langridge in October. The balance is sold as stores privately.
By then the teasers will have been in with the early flock prior to tupping in September. This flock scans at 170 per cent, is winter sheared and lambs in polytunnels which are used to grow vegetables for the house during the summer months.
The later flock goes to the ram on December 1, with one ram covering between 80 and 100 ewes, resulting in a 165 per cent scanning average.
“We do not flush the ewes because we do not want a huge lambing percentage,” says Mr Chatfield. “I want the ewes to do a good job and if the ewes can average one-and-a-half lambs each sold I am happy. And I like to use either Suffolk, Texel, or Charollais cross-bred rams because of their hybrid vigour.”
Alongside rent, flock replacements are the business’ biggest input. Mr Chatfield’s rule of thumb is that if a ewe does not fit into his system it goes, because he does most of the work on his own. He is also very disciplined when it comes to culling for teeth, lameness and bad udders.
Ewe lambs are bought-in and vaccinated against toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion.
“This costs between £10 and £15/lamb but I have learned through experience it is worth the money,” says Mr Chatfield. “The lambs go to ram to lamb in May and any which scan empty are sold – which helps with the cash flow.”