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Cumbrian sheep farmers working hard to produce more from less

Nic and Paul Renison, who farm on the edge of the North Pennines, are keen to adopt new ideas when it comes to running their 
farming business, taking agro-forestry and breed embryo schemes in their stride. Laura Bowyer met the couple to find out more.
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After making the move from farm managers to owners, Nic and Paul Renison are developing their business at Cannerheugh Farm, Renwick, Cumbria.


Farming 146 hectares (366 acres) plus 14ha (34 acres) of rented ground, sheep take centre stage, accompanied by a heifer rearing enterprise. With the flock, genetics and grass management are key to the success of the Renisons’ business.


When the couple first moved to the farm, all they took with them was a shearing machine and a number of sheepdogs. In their first year they bought 650 ewes, made up of Swaledales, Herdwicks, Mules and cross-breds, trying to keep on top of disease by not to drawing from too many holdings.

hill flock
dairy

Lambing

Ewes carrying twins and triplets receive 300-350g per day of high protein concentrate during the last month of gestation alongside silage.


Singles have a silage-only diet and body condition score is carefully monitored, with ewes moved between feeding groups if necessary.


The 750 hill ewes and hoggs start lambing on April 20 and all have been put to the Aberfield.


Last year, Aberfield ewe lambs scanned at 185 per cent and an average lambing percentage of 155-160 per cent is hoped for with the hill flock, also due to lamb from April 20.

Traits

The farm now runs 1,050 ewes. Mrs Renison says: “Those which are naturally mated are tupped by Aberfield rams, selected on estimated breeding values for maternal traits and growth.


“The Aberfield grows quickly off forage, which suits our system, with less dependence on bought-in concentrates.


“Without being breed specific, we are working towards breeding a hardy, self-replacing, white-faced flock with a view to selling prime and store animals, plus surplus breeding females.”


The Renisons are in the first year of three as an Innovis multiplier farm. During three days last October, 600 Abermax embryos, bought from the breeding company, were implanted in the 300 cross-bred recipient ewes.


Tup lambs are taken to 18 months and those meeting specification are sold back to Innovis. Abermax ewe lambs will be kept to build a flock of the breed.


After three years of multiplying using embryos, natural service will be used to produce Abermax rams. Fast finishing Primera and Abermax sweepers are used on this group of ewes, due to lamb inside from March 5.


The Renisons’ main aim is to be profitable and sustainable, and both have worked as technical area salesmen for Innovis.

Environmental improvements

Working with the Woodland Trust, introducing broad-leaved and Scots pine trees enclosed by wooden boxes, the Renisons are embracing the benefits of ‘agro-forestry’.

They entered the Higher Level Stewardship scheme in 2012 and capital works including walling, hedge planting, tree planting and fencing have helped stock-proof the farm. Trees are planted and a ‘sod-cast’, a raised piece of ground used to protect saplings.

Income

Mr Renison says: “From the outset, it was recognised we needed to generate income off-farm.


Being on a show stand or at a meeting talking to farmers about sheep is not what I was expecting to do, but our off-farm work has made us evaluate our business in much more depth.”

 

Their involvement with the breeding technology firm has also encouraged rotational grazing systems on-farm, where small paddocks are grazed, with animals moved between them regularly to encourage even grass growth.


Mr Renison says: “After speaking to grassland specialists Neil Perkins, from Pembrokeshire, and Duncan Nelless, from Northumberland, we saw the potential of what could be achieved by managing our grass, but also our soils which have been overlooked in the last few decades.”

Cannerheugh Farm’s flock

  • 270 Aberfield cross hoggs
  • 300 cross-bred ewes – 150 Texel cross Swaledales, and 150 Aberfield crosses which are used as recipients
  • Hill flock of 480 Swaledale and Herdwicks – all put to Aberfield tups

Grazing

During winter, there are 80ha (200 acres) allocated to rotational grazing for all sheep, other than the 270 hoggs which are set stocked. Paddocks are split using electric fencing and the Renisons hope to eventually put a single strand of electric fence around the perimeter of the farm.

 

“By using rotational and cell grazing we can stock more sheep, improve swards on-farm and reduce fertiliser use. Regular soil testing allows us to keep an eye on pH and manage accordingly.


“Although easier to manage, set-stocking encourages sheep to cherry pick and overgraze the most palatable grasses. We hope by using a strict, short grazing regime, followed by a long enough rest period, we can encourage natural regeneration of existing rye-grass and clover.”


Mr Renison adds: “In rotational grazing, the sheep have a restricted diet and have to eat everything. It is easier to manage big groups of sheep and they require less time to check. When you move the group, any animals with problems will hang back.

Bacteria

“You can reduce antibiotic usage when rotational grazing as sheep are given fresh pasture all the time, therefore foot rot bacteria is not hanging around.”


When it comes to dealing with foot problems, all lame sheep are quarantined to stop the spread of bacteria. Feet are not trimmed to avoid the possibility hoof damage and a foot bath will be installed. There is a strict culling programme and if a ewe is constantly lame it is tagged and culled. The same protocol lies with prolapses, mastitis and bad mothering.


If ewes have a body condition score of 3 or 4 they do not receive a drench for worms. Those ewes carrying more body fat are held on poorer ground, building up a grazing wedge in order to rotate large mobs around the farm. But if sheep are leaner, they will be treated for worms.


Mrs Renison says: “We want our sheep to live with a worm challenge. It is hoped this will slow the rate of resistance. Following sheep through paddocks with the cattle seems to help clean up any worms.”


As with many farms, the rain has been a challenge for the couple in recent years, but the farm is also in the course of the famed ‘Helm Wind’ – the only named wind in the British Isles. This strong north-easterly bluster can prove difficult to work in.


Mrs Renison says: “We have only been at this farm for about three years and are still learning its ground and different areas. Consequently, we have had some problems, including staggers and coccidiosis.


“The farm is a work in progress and we have our share of disasters. When problems arise, it is just us to blame. Consequently, lessons are learned quickly.”


Cannerheugh Farm also stages the North West regional Innovis ram sale, where 217 rams were sold last year.

Tups

The Renisons will sell their first home-bred Abermax shearling tups, which were born on-farm last week, at this sale next year. Gimmers from the embryo transfer programme will be kept for breeding, while ram lambs which do not pass the selection criteria will be sold fat.


“With the burden of loan repayments hanging over the farm, paying the bills is a constant worry. But we need to invest as well to keep things moving forward,” says Mrs Renison.


“We are trying to stay away from buying machinery but have bought a pasture aerator to alleviate compaction, encourage clover and improve microbial diversity to increase grass and production.”

cattle

Simmental cows were bought in the couple’s first year at the farm and were then put in-calf and sold on as couples.

Mrs Renison says: “A lot of money was tied up in suckler cows and, at the end of it, no profit was being made, so the decision was made to sell them.

“In their place we now rear dairy heifers on contract, providing the labour and shed space while the cattle’s owners supply the rest. In winter we get 50p per day per animal for doing this.”

Heifers arrive at eight-weeks-old and leave the farm at four months in-calf. There are 40 on-farm at the moment and the plan is to double this number.
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