For Neil Brown, the aim of running a profitable beef and sheep farm without reliance on subsidies prompted his application for the AHDB strategic farm programme. Hannah Noble reports.
Having graduated from Walford College, Oswestry, with a national diploma in agriculture, Neil Brown returned to his family’s beef and sheep farm in Ludlow, Shropshire.
Mr Brown, who farms alongside his father Lewis, says: “I am at the stage in my life where I am wanting to learn, which is why I applied for AHDB’s strategic farm programme.
“We cannot continue to do the same thing year in year out. We need to look for areas to make changes and improvements in the business.”
New House Farm comprises 121 hectares (300 acres), plus 28ha (70 acres) of rented land, and became one of AHDB’s strategic sheep farms in 2019.
As part of his involvement in the programme, Mr Brown hopes to implement rotational grazing for both the sheep and cattle, look at improving the quality of forages and gather more data on ewe and lamb performance.
The farm is home to an 800-strong flock of Suffolk crosses and North of England Mules, comprising 650 ewes and 150 hoggs, as well as a herd of 25 suckler cows plus followers.
The Suffolk cross ewes are tupped with Texel cross Charollais tups and the Mules are tupped with Suffolk tups.
Mr Brown says: “We have the Mules to allow us to breed our own Suffolk cross ewe lambs. I can never seem to find Suffolk ewe lambs I really like, so I prefer to breed my own.”
Currently the tups are left in with the ewes until scanning, but this is something Mr Brown hopes to revaluate as part of the programme. The Suffolk ewes are scanned at the start of January and the Mules at the start of February.
Before lambing, ewes are fed concentrates dependent on the number of lambs they are carrying. Those carrying triplets are fed from five weeks pre-lambing, twins from four weeks and singles from two weeks.
From two weeks before lambing, those carrying twins and triplets also have access to ad-lib molasses.
Suffolk ewes lamb first inside at the end of March with the help of vet students, followed by the Mules at the start of April, which are lambed outside if the weather allows, and finally yearlings and hoggs in mid-April.
Each year the Browns keep 80-100 lambs as replacements and buy-in 50-60 North of England Mule lambs too, sourced from Kendal and Hawes, all of which are tupped as lambs with Blue Texel tups.
Mr Brown says: “I do not like lambing yearlings without having had a lamb, I think they can be more problematic than lambing hoggs, and I do not have the room to have hoggs running around empty, so I think if you have a good sized lamb, give it the chance of the tup.
“If I can sell 100 lambs off the hoggs it makes the rearing costs of replacements lower.”
Prior to joining the programme, Mr Brown was using electronic identification (EID) to record information on the flock, and he says over the coming years he hopes to increase the amount of performance data recorded on ewes and lambs to aid management on-farm, as well as allow him to benchmark more effectively.
He says: “This year we are going to tag all the lambs at eight weeks old and record all their weights, we are also going to record all our lamb losses.
“Going forward we are looking to monitor growth rates more carefully all the way through to finishing. This will allow us to compare growth rates for rotational grazing, creep feeding and set stocking.”
By the time lambs are weaned in June, Mr Brown says often there is not enough grass left, so later born lambs from Mules and hoggs are put onto forage rape. But with the introduction of rotational grazing for sheep, he hopes this will mean there will be more grass available to finish lambs.
Lambs off the Suffolk ewes, which lamb first, are creep fed to reach their target weight of 40kg, before being sold liveweight through Ludlow market from the second week in June.
Mr Brown says: “Normally we have stubble turnips and fat lambs would out-winter on them, but this year, as it was so wet, we brought them inside in October and finished them there.
“This freed our stubble turnips up for ewe lambs, which we would usually be feeding quite heavily over winter, so we saved a lot on feed as well as grass.”
Historically in spring there were still several hundred fat lambs waiting to be sold, and Mr Brown says this was a challenge juggling them alongside lambing.
Mr Brown says lambs sold in the last season averaged about £85/head at an average weight of 45kg.
He is also using EID recording to allow him to manage lameness better. Lame sheep are identified and treated with a long-acting antibiotic and the type of lameness is recorded.
He says: “We are probably not culling hard enough on lameness, but by identifying problems sheep have, it may highlight treatment routes we need to go down, for example, foot rot vaccination.”
To better target anthelmintic treatment for sheep, Mr Brown has been using faecal egg counts (FECs) for about two years. However, recently he has undergone training to be able to carry out his own FEC on-farm.
During the growing season, Mr Brown aims to regularly conduct FECs on lambs and drench accordingly.
He says: “I am hoping the rotational grazing will help with worm control too, but mainly I want to identify any anthelmintic resistance here. We are going to do an egg count before and after drenching to see if treatment is working.
“It is more convenient to be able to do the FEC ourselves rather than having to take a sample to the vets every few weeks. Testing means we can be more specific with treatment and ensure we are using the right product.”
The suckler herd is made up of a mixture of Charolais, Limousin, Aberdeen-Angus and Simmental cross cows.
Mr Brown says: “Replacements we normally buy-in are cows with calves at foot, but we were now looking to buy-in heifers and bull them ourselves.”
Mr Brown bulls heifers at 22 months old and says it is important to him to have some size to his heifers before they get pregnant. However, since joining the strategic farm programme they have been in discussions about the benefits of calving at two-years-old.
For the last 10 years the family has finished all their own cattle and sold them on a deadweight basis to ABP at Shrewsbury.
He says: “Previously the cattle were going to Ludlow market, but they were too heavy and there was not enough buyers for those heavy cattle at the market, which is why we bit the bullet and went deadweight.”
Currently they aim for a finished carcase weight of 420kg for steers and 380kg for heifers, but this has to change due to penalties on large carcases becoming more of an issue.
Mr Brown says: “We need to try and aim for a 400kg carcase with the steers, and to do this we need to get them gone sooner.
“At the moment they are sold at 24 to 26 months old. We would like to aim for heifers to be killed at about 18 months and steers at 20-22 months.”
Youngstock are finished over winter, steers and heifers are separated and they spend up to six months inside on the home-grown finishing ration, which consists of grass silage and barley. The concentrate fraction of the diet is fed at a daily rate of 8kg/head for steers and 5kg/head for heifers.
However, Mr Brown says he intends to decrease the levels of barley fed by using rotational grazing from this summer with the hope of increasing growth rates of cattle at a younger age and improve grass utilisation.
Cows are currently turned out in in mid-May, but Mr Brown hopes to bring this forward to the end of April, weather permitting, and instead of bringing beef cattle in to finish in October, he hopes to house them in August with the intention of slaughtering them sooner.
He says: “We are getting advice from a grassland specialist to improve the quality of our silage so we can feed less barley, hopefully get better growth rates and hit finishing targets earlier.
“At the moment we are making our silage too dry. We are leaving it on the ground for too long, it can be down for up to three days before it is baled.
“This is something we have always done. We find cattle keep cleaner on drier silage, but we are losing the nutritional quality.”
To follow the stories of any of the AHDB strategic farms visit ahdb.org.uk/farm-excellence