Poll Dorset sheep are helping the biodiversity of a predominantly arable farming business in Essex.
The family-owned company E. W. Davies Farms, based at Thaxted, Dunmow, farms 1,300ha (3212acres) which includes owned land and land contract farmed for other land owners.
Farm manager, Jeremy Durrant says: “Until about six years ago the intensive arable rotation on the farm had been wheat, wheat and rape. This rotation which had been in operation for 30-plus years resulted in the organic matter of the soil being very low in places.
“With the lack of new alternative products coming to the market, weeds such as blackgrass were becoming more of a problem to control. So we decided to take an integrated approach and use grass leys with livestock to help build organic matter and natural fertility.”
The opportunity to establish an 18ha (44 acre) solar farm on a former arable field further created the need for livestock to graze. Sheep fitted the bill and at the same time grass swards were introduced as part of the arable rotation.
Since the summer of 2018 Mr Durrant has been working with NIAB and Sheffield and Bangor universities on a project which looks at re-introducing grass leys back into the arable rotation and, more specifically, with the aim of demonstration to arable farmers how they can improve soils with grassland and by grazing livestock.
In the 5ha (12 acres) trial area the concentration is on a mixture of grass and herb leys which includes 18 different species of herbs and grasses. The project is looking at both soil health and animal health.
Now 100ha (247 acres) is down to grass and this includes 25-30ha (62-74 acres) of arable grassland which is part of the arable rotation around the farm, 18ha (44 acres) of solar panels and 30ha (74 acres) of less productive land put down to permanent pasture.
Further adding to the farm’s livestock, a unit to contract rear pigs from three weeks old to slaughter for bacon for BQP was put up in 2019.
Mr Durrant took over as manager of the business 11 years ago and brought with him a background of arable management and Dorset sheep.
Growing up on the family mixed farm in north Dorset in his early teens he had his own flock of pedigree Poll Dorsets which he sold before spending a year in Australia working on an arable farm. On his return he worked on another arable unit in Kent before the move to Thaxted.
The practice of controlled traffic farming to reduce soil compaction which he experienced in Australia has been adopted on the farm along with very shallow tillage.
He says: “The main reason we went for the Dorsets was their ability to lamb out of season to fit in with the arable year and to be able to graze the 100ha of grassland and the 100ha of cover crop we now grow to improve the soil.”
The livestock also helps fully utilise the staff alongside the additional staff of three full-time and one part time-man.
The majority of the cover crop is rye and vetch which has several different benefits for the farm. It is used as a catch crop and it qualifies for the greening element of BPS as well as improving the soil.
The crop is planted before August 15 after harvest and it can be grazed from October 15 which works in well with the November lambing of the Dorset ewes. It is then followed up with either a crop of sugar beet, spring oats or spring beans.
Mr Durrant says: “We also grow stubble turnips including clover which helps fix N as a cover crop but the rye and vetch provides a bulkier food for the ewes and lambs. We graze them on that initially and move them over to the stubble turnips in the early part of the year.”
The Dorsets are run under Hydes Farming as a separate business to the main enterprise, and Mr Durrant is a partner. The flock’s foundation of 120 commercial ewe lambs was bought five years ago from his godparents on the south coast of Dorset.
Pedigree stock rams were bought from Jim Dufosee’s Blackhill flock at Warminster, Wiltshire, and further pedigree female additions were bought from Rob Hole’s Sherborne flock in Dorset.
Last year Mr Durrant began registering the pedigree sheep under the Hydes prefix and has started Signet recording. He confesses to being “addicted” to wanting better sheep in the flock.
He says: “They are very easy-going sheep. We vaccinate but we do not routinely foot trim, although we do run them through the footbath when we are handling them.”
The flock now numbers 400 ewes and until this year all have been lambed inside in November. While the ewes are not synchronized, the lambing is kept tight to fit in with the farm’s arable system and to ensure finished lambs hit the early Easter market.
Only running the ewes with the ram for a month ensures that 95 per cent of the flock lambs within a three-week period. The flock’s lambing percentage of lambs born is 175 per cent for the ewes and 120 per cent for the ewe lambs.
After a couple of days they are turned out to strip graze the cover crops where they do a good job of reducing the residues from the crop.
“The ewes and lambs have to be robust for what is a tough system and any ewes that are not up to it are culled. We have found the pedigree sheep are the best ewes for the system,” says Mr Durrant.
“This year 70 ewe lambs have been kept back and will be put to the ram for November lambing. We would normally expect about 50 per cent of them to hold.”
With the expanding flock numbers. Mr Durrant thinks the optimum number is 1,000 ewes, depending on the availability of grazing. This year the 200 pedigrees will lamb outside in September with the commercial ewes lambing from November 1.
Inputs are minimal with only housed ewes being fed some concentrate and only 300kg of concentrate is fed over a 12-month period.
Lambs are reared on milk and the cover crop and marketing begins on March 1 at 12 weeks old in batches which are sold direct to a local butcher with customers which include restaurants run by celebrity chefs in London.
This year, as part of a south east Dorset group, Mr Durrant is looking to supply lamb to Waitrose.
He says: “The target is to net £100 a lamb after slaughter costs and we have achieved that for the last five years.
“While flock numbers were being built up the lamb was sold direct to the public in boxes. Next year we will be aiming to finish 600 lambs plus retain breeding stock.”
Mr Durrant plans to increase flock numbers mainly by breeding by around 50 a year to be able to assess the potential grazing and the ultimate aim is to sell pedigree breeding sheep.