Despite only owning two hectares (five acres) just 10 years ago, Adam Pitts now runs a successfully diverse farming business. Rebecca Jordan reports.
Adam Pitts has worked to secure his farming future by establishing several distinct enterprises which generate cashflow, accrue capital, harness the latest genetic technology and are mutually beneficial.
Based at Gulliver Side, Exminster, Devon, Mr Pitts’ operations vary from 5,500 organic free-range chickens finished every five weeks for Two Sisters, 600 breeding rams managed over winter for Innovis, a business shearing 25,000 sheep in the West Country, and, more recently, a sheep breeding programme – also for Innovis.
Just 10 years ago, Mr Pitts owned just two hectares (five acres) of land. With an abiding passion for sheep, he was running a 200-ewe flock, finishing lambs in a traditional system based on grass keep. He soon realised this was not a successful way to raise capital and enhance his business, so he approached Two Sisters and, a year later, also established the shearing enterprise which was the backbone of his business in the early days.
He says: “The contract with Two Sisters was the best thing I have ever done. It has been the only entry into agriculture which has enabled me to be cash positive.”
For the chicken business, Mr Pitts is not required to buy the chicks, and is paid on a p/kg basis on finishing.
Day-old chicks are housed for three weeks and managed on two hectares (five acres) of rented organic ground half a mile away from the home farm. Stocking rate for chickens is about one per sq.m and the area is rotated in a further 16ha (40 acres) which is tilled to organic spring barley and grass leys. Within 70 days of arrival the chickens weigh 2.5kg and are ready to send to Two Sisters. The sheds must then be ‘clinically cleaned’ which takes two weeks.
Mr Pitts is required to buy in feed but, with the finished meat price/kg pegged to the feed price, he feels the fluctuation in margins seen by other finishing enterprises is not so noticeable here. In fact, one of the major spin offs of the enterprise’s profitability is he has been able to take on a full-time worker to help this and the sheep enterprise.
“During the recession, sales of organic chicken dropped. Two Sisters says we are out of the slump now as sales are on the increase again,” says Mr Pitts.
“The forecasters at Sainsbury’s, where the chickens are sold, predict market fluctuations. When sales are likely to drop I am supplied with the same number of chicks, but there is a longer gap between each batch. At the worst time, for example, I was only receiving chicks on a 10-week rota, not five.”
A chance meeting with arable farmer Matt Cotton, from R. and P. Farming at Oakridge, near Mamhead, Dawlish, in 2013 resulted in a share farming agreement where Mr Pitts originally managed Mr Cotton’s ewes. Soon he amalgamated his own flock to establish a 350 Suffolk cross ewe flock over 121ha (300 acres) of grass leys, some in a Higher Level Scheme agreement, as part of Farm Business Tenancy and contract agreements.
“I tried renting ground everywhere but it did not work as I could not generate enough capital and was not building a business for the future.
“This system gave me more enthusiasm for sheep farming while I felt secure in a bigger farming operation which gave me back up. I was able to have a better quality of life while still self-employed and generating capital.
“My accountancy background has been invaluable at helping me understand a share farming agreement and the budget-based decision-making process common in arable farming.”
During this period, the chicken contract was generating cashflow. This meant he could improve grass leys while managing the flock on a rotational paddock grazing system – something which was needed if grazing was to be optimised in a farming enterprise where arable was the emphasis and field boundaries a thing of the past.
“I had to get away from the mindset of hoping for the best in my sheep enterprise and, instead, start wondering why parts of it were not working. Improving grassland was a good place to start,” says Mr Pitts.
“As such I direct drilled chicory and white clover into those pastures. The former helped reduce our worm burden and is a good source of protein. It can get dry here so its deep root is vital in summer, especially this year when we had no rain for more than a month. The mix grows well and works in the arable rotational system.
“The chickens provided great cashflow but no capital growth. I needed the latter to build up my business. Everyone in agriculture needs something to sell to get themselves out of trouble,” he says.
By coincidence Peers Davis, an Innovis vet, approached Mr Cotton and Mr Pitts to see if they would be interested in working with a genetics group which supplies a range of hybrid terminal and maternal rams to commercial sheep farmers.
Innovis was searching for a farm to look after its rams in winter and prepare them for selection and sale days. The partnership would be paid on a set rate each week for each ram.
“It was enough to be worth it and certainly took out the uncertainty of a fluctuating lamb price which meant I could budget more accurately,” says Mr Pitts.
“And Innovis’ approach to sheep farming reignited my enthusiasm for agriculture. I have learned more about sheep farming in the past three years than ever before. No longer do I accept animals which underperform. I understand and have seen the health benefits of a closed flock and it has become obvious lame sheep do not perform and must be culled.”
In September 2013, Mr Pitts received 200 ram lambs weighing 45-50kg. He was not convinced the system would work, as he was concerned such a volume of rams in a flock situation would kill his dogs and lay waste to fencing, not to mention the fact he could not envisage selling so many rams.
These had already been selected for foot structure, mouths and type, with 40 per cent culled before arriving in Devon where they were immediately shorn. From December, they grazed stubble turnips and roots, moving to fresh grass leys in March.
Lambs were weighed each month and, in February, those not performing were culled. Any lameness which did not respond to an initial injection of antibiotics also resulted in an early exit.
Shearing was a mammoth operation and then, at the beginning of July, it was MOT Day. The vet turned over every sheep, selecting and inspecting them for feet, penis, teeth and testicles. A total of 170 made it to the selection day later that month.
Commercial farmers were invited to visit and 70 per cent were sold. So called ‘elite’ Aberfield or Abertex rams – those in the top 25 per cent – sold for about £900, while average, commercial Abermax, Aberblack or Primera shearlings made about £500. Those in the top 50 per cent of the selection process were dubbed ‘select’, with prices ranging from £600-£700.
Mr Pitts looked after 600 rams last winter and followed the same management practice he had in the first year. These rams were Abermax, Aberfield, Primera and Highlanders. Half were sold off-farm at two selection days and the rest sent north to other Innovis sales.
He admits he underestimated how much work was required to meet Innovis’ standards and is mindful he is contract rearing for a breeding company.
“It is hard work keeping the sheep looking right. Because this is an easy-care system, with no concentrate, the rams must be moved round the paddocks on a regular basis,” he says.
“However, I have to be mindful these rams are not mollycoddled, but managed realistically in a commercial setting. If they cannot survive here, what use are they to anyone else?”
With this philosophy in mind, Mr Pitts last year decided to take on a breeding programme for Innovis as well. He implanted 300 Aberfield embryos into 160 commercial Suffolk cross ewes. Of these, 105 ewes scanned in-lamb to carry 178 embryos and 59 per cent held successfully, lambing at the beginning of March.
The objective of this operation was to produce breeding rams – such as those Mr Pitts is taking in each year.
“Only 50 per cent of these ram lambs will make it past the selection process. The ewe lambs will, if selected as gimmers, go to an Aberfield ram and be flushed.
The remaining 55 ewes in this group were served naturally to an Abermax ram. Lambs born indoors in the middle of March are fed only grass. They averaged 29kg liveweight at nine weeks and went to St Merryn on a Tesco contract.
Aberfield cross Highlander ewes put to an Abermax ram are the basis of the current commercial flock. The main aim for this flock is to have a home-bred ewe which can lamb outside. Only the best performing sheep are kept for replacements.
“Working in a share farming agreement as well as with Innovis has made me realise bigger is not better in farming,” says Mr Pitts.
“My objective now is to aim for a good work/life balance in a system based on good honest stock which hopefully will be in demand. I feel more secure now than I ever have in agriculture by being linked to large farming businesses but I realise compromise will always be key to us all working together successfully.”