Recording every aspect of farm performance informs decision making at Coldwall Farm in the Peak District. Chloe Palmer speaks to Danny Holland to learn more about the farm behind the figures.
Peak District farmer Danny Holland is the first to admit his enthusiasm for keeping records of every cost, sale and lamb mortality in his diary is unusual among the farming fraternity.
This information, however, has helped to guide his farm business to success as his flock has expanded from 150 ewes to 1,100 ewes in 12 years.
He says: “I find keeping a diary is the best management tool because it is improving the simplest things which makes a real difference.”
Mr Holland is modest about his progress in a short period of time, describing himself as ‘lucky’. It becomes clear he has made most of his own luck through hard work and attention to detail.
“I am always keen to learn from the people I respect – I will listen to their advice, choose certain ideas and try them here and find out what works for my system,” he says.
Mr Holland began his farming career in his own right when he purchased a small flock of Suffolk Mule ewes at £68 per head. In the first year, he split the flock and put half the ewes to a Charollais and the remainder to a Texel ram.
He says: “When I came to sell the lambs, I found the Charollais lambs consistently made 7p or 8p per kg less than the Texel lambs.
Despite this, I was reluctant to use only pure-bred Texel rams because I find pedigree ewes mean more work and less milk.
“We now buy our Texel cross Beltex rams from Paul Slater because they perform consistently and we no longer have difficulties at lambing. The lambs achieve a carcase quality which is second to none.”
Mr Holland calculates the ratio of rams to ewes on the basis of each ram producing the equivalent of 4.2 tonnes of lambs.
Reviewing his records of the killing out percentages achieved by lambs out of his Suffolk Mule ewes persuaded him to move towards buying Texel Mules. Another key decision was prompted by regular monitoring of the graphs of lamb prices in Farmers Guardian.
Mr Holland says: “I worked out the total cost of the concentrate I would need to feed to finish my lambs earlier to make higher prices. I calculated I could make it pay so I started pulling back ewes and putting them to the tup so I could have batches of lambs in January and February.”
Once Mr Holland switched to earlier lambing, he continued to do his sums to enable him to make the right choices. “I calculated sending ewes to winter away would cost me up to 50p per week per ewe. I compared the relative cost of keeping them at home at grass to housing them and worked out it would cost no more to keep them in.”
Mr Holland now houses all the ewes six to eight weeks before lambing and feeds them 0.25kg of concentrate each day. He has since noted other advantages from keeping the ewes inside for this period.
He says: “They eat less concentrate and haylage because they are not walking it off and the land also benefits from the muck and straw.
I buy my straw off the field from a nearby arable farmer to keep costs to a minimum.”
At lambing, Mr Holland says they attempt to observe the highest standards of biosecurity and this pays off.
“We keep boxes of arm-length gloves in all the lambing sheds so they are used with every lambing to prevent infection. We now use a phosphorous powder in the pens instead of lime because we find it lessens the incidence of mastitis.”
Mr Holland has also identified the successful adoption of lambs as a valuable way of cost saving.
“Where a ewe adopts a lamb compared to us rearing a cade lamb, the savings equate to 55kg of concentrate and 12kg of milk powder which adds up to £35 per lamb when sold at average liveweight,” he says.
Mr Holland reviews the causes of any lamb losses and takes action to address specific problems.
“If I lose more than one lamb in a week I will send them for post-mortem, but where I get an occasional loss, I will cut it open to try and identify if there is an obvious cause of death.”
Mr Holland adopts a strict protocol at birth including iodine application and injection with a long-acting broad spectrum antibiotic. A high incidence of coccidiosis in the lamb crop has now been addressed by drenching with a 5 per cent solution of an anticoccidial treatment.
He says: “I believe in prevention because it makes sense financially. I am particularly vigilant when lambs are six weeks old because this is when lambs swap from their mother’s immunity to their own.”
A recent Eblex campaign highlighting the impact of lameness on the sheep industry came as no surprise to Mr Holland who is convinced of the importance of good feet.
“Lame lambs do not grow as fast. We bring the lambs in twice a week to inspect for lameness and anything with foot problems is foot-bathed in a 5 per cent formalin solution. We also trim feet rather than relying on the footbath alone.”
Every aspect of lamb management contributes to Mr Holland’s ultimate aim. “We push all the lambs as hard as we can, feeding as much creep as necessary. The earlier we can get the lambs away the better because it results in a reduced workload and enables us to take a higher price for them.”
Ewe health is equally as important so, at housing, the flock is treated with oxytetracycline to prevent cloudy eyes and abortion and to reduce the spread of bacterial foot problems.
The loss of more than 300 lambs to Schmallenberg virus in 2013 was one of the low points of Mr Holland’s farming career. This was one occasion when he chose not to protect against future infection.
He says: “I decided not to vaccinate against Schmallenberg the following summer because I thought it might be a one-hit wonder, as Bluetongue was in the previous year. The vaccine was not proven and it would cost £3.30 per ewe; I figured a proportion of my flock
might have developed its own immunity. It was a gamble, but it paid off.”
This year, Mr Holland is experimenting with a multivitamin bolus whereas in the past he has relied on drenching before the ewes go to the ram.
“It will cost me up to three times more but I hope to save the equivalent because it is longer lasting.”
As with every other purchase, Mr Holland will keep a record of the relative cost of using a bolus so he can make a comparison based on the eventual cost per lamb.
Mr Holland is equally exacting when it comes forage production.
“Clean fodder is paramount on this farm. We do not pay rent to grow weeds. Mole catching is also high on my agenda because I do not want to risk listeria from mould in the haylage.”
Early lambing means 81 hectares (200 acres) of Mr Holland’s flatter grassland can be shut up in May. This can the be mown six weeks later yielding 12-15 bales of haylage per ha (5-6 bales/acre).
Mr Holland runs a suckler herd of 80 Blonde cross British Blue cows alongside his sheep flock. Although he calculates there is a lower margin in cattle compared to sheep, he argues there are other benefits to his farm and the business.
He says: “The ground would become sick if we did not keep cattle as it benefits from the muck. The cattle help cash flow as we calve all year round so I can sell groups of store cattle at times of year when we have no income from the sheep.”
Mr Holland is a tenant of the Okeover estate and has earned the confidence of his landlords by treating the land as if it was his own. By proving he will look after the rented acres, he has managed to increase his acreage each time additional land becomes available and hopes to continue to take on more land.
“I would like to expand to 1,000 acres but I have not yet decided whether we choose to expand the sheep flock or the suckler herd.
Weighing up the relative margin for each enterprise will enable me to make the right choice for the future.”