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Farm focus: Does the Easy Care breed live up to its name?

Environmental pressure and flexible planning for the future are hallmarks of the farm management of a North Yorkshire hill farm running both extensively and intensively managed sheep flocks.

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Changing needs have led to the establishment of extensively managed Easy Care and more intensively managed half-bred sheep flocks. These are meeting both present and future needs for Holmfirth farmers James Howard and his father Jimmy.


Environmental schemes have meant fewer sheep on the higher part of the farm and a move away from the farm’s original Swaledale ewes with these, and Mules, bred to New Zealand Suffolk and Texel tups to produce the half-breds.


James says: “We found Swaledales on the lower ground were too expensive to keep with cull Swaledale ewes and Swaledale lambs not very good to sell.


“By moving to the half-breds we have gone for a ewe which is more responsive to better feed and more intensive management.


“The half-bred ewes are on a relatively high input and high output system with at least 200 per cent lambing and turning out every ewe with two lambs.


“With the Easy Care we wanted a sheep which we could just go round once a day at lambing time and lamb without problems.


“Apart from breeding pure Easy Cares, we are trying our New Zealand Suffolk and Texel tups on them to produce Easy Care half-bred commercial ewes.


“After using our New Zealand tups as a first cross, we use English Texel tups as terminal sires on both the half-breds and the Easy Care half-breds.


“We have already had enquiries from the supplier of our New Zealand Suffolk tups about New Zealand Suffolk cross Easy Care ewes.”


The Howard family farms at Lane Farm in Holmfirth, North Yorkshire. The farmstead lies about 335 metres (1,100 feet) above sea level and rises to 594m (1,950ft) at the top.


At the moment, sheep are kept on about 121 hectares (300 acres) of enclosed rough grazing plus 121 to 162ha (300 to 400 acres) of improved ground.


There is a small area of owned land with most of the land being rented with the family’s main landlord Yorkshire Water.


Sheep numbers are variable with the resident sheep flock of about 1,000 ewes split equally between the Easy Care and half-breds. In addition store lambs are bought-in for finishing.


The farm also has a spring-calving suckler herd of about 45 cows bred by beef bulls, mainly Aberdeen-Angus and Limousin, out of dairy cattle and put to Limousin.


Calves are sold as stores or finished animals depending on the market at the time.


The half-bred ewes lamb inside in April with the Easy Cares starting lambing outside from May 1.


James says: “We had a new shed a couple of years ago which has made things a lot easier.


“We were lucky this year as our half-breds were already inside when the bad snow came at the end of March.


“All our ewes are away wintered for about four months. Normally we expect them to rear lambs off grass, but this spring, condition was not so good so we creep-fed lambs to take a load off the ewes.”


Lambs started leaving the farm in early August but James says most will sell from September onwards.


“We are finding we are getting lambs away earlier and earlier which makes me think we are also doing a better job of looking after them. It also means we are getting more out of our sheep.”


Most lambs are sold deadweight unless there are any smaller batches which will sell through Skipton Mart. James adds the first batch this year went off grass at about 42kg-43kg liveweight.


James says: “We are not going for extreme sheep and the problems they bring. We want a good carcase produced as cheaply as possible.


“With the Easy Care, at lambing we interfere as little as possible and any problem ewes are culled.


When selecting ram lambs we only keep animals from ewes which have given twins, born and reared with no interference.


“We would rather buy our rams direct from farms so we know where they have come from. There is not a quarantine system, but they will be kept apart from the main flock for a few days.


“During this time they will be tested for everything and treated as necessary for any health problems. Bought-in store lambs are also kept separate from our breeding flocks.”


James says he is cynical about many of the Texels and Suffolks being sold in the UK.


“They tend to be from small flocks of 20 to 30 ewes where they get a lot of attention including during lambing.


“The breeders are recording growth rates for use at sales, but these are not off forage, which I am interested in, but from use of concentrates. I went to a major Texel sale and it seemed breeders were mainly interested in the size of the heads which got larger and larger.


“The New Zealand Suffolk and Texels are bred to use forage, work in large flocks and have some resistance to worms.


“There is research in New Zealand looking at breeding for blowfly resistance. You would think tight fleeces would give the best resistance, but they are finding this is not the case.


“The study suggests tight fleeces hold natural oils and dirt which attract flies and the more open fleeces are less attractive to flies. This is a point in favour of the Easy Care which naturally sheds its hair/wool in early summer and is bare until the autumn.


“There has hardly been any fluke here until four or five years ago. There was a major problem two years ago and we treated heavily against fluke which knocked it back. I think we are now on top of it.”


Turning to grassland, James says soil samples are taken across all grassland and fertiliser is used where the analyses show it is needed.


“We are getting a little more clover, but it is a matter of keeping things in balance. I am not a believer in fertiliser and would rather get the grass out of well managed ground.


“While we would struggle to be organic here, there is a lot we can learn from organic principles.”


He adds the sheep cause some soil compaction but an aerator has been used to help improve its structure. Reseeding is restricted by ground conditions on much of the farm and the Howards says they have to make the best use of all they have, which involves making their own silage but buying-in straw.


Looking forward, James says managing this type of farm is not just about farming, but ‘working within restrictions imposed’ to preserve the environment and water quality. These mainly cover spreading manure and fertilisers.


“There are only myself and my father running the farm with the help of contractors.


“While the present sheep system is fairly intensive, the mix, with the Easy Care, means it could easily become less intensive if needed in the future.


“We have been retaining all Easy Care ewe lambs to increase the flock, but we are now in a position to sell surplus Easy Care sheep as well as Easy Care New Zealand half-breds.


“Overall, I think the balance between cattle and sheep is about right and there is no reason to change.”

Lane Farm facts

  • Rainfall is about 1,829mm (72 inches) annually
  • Apart from livestock, the farm has two cottages for holiday lets
  • James also competes in sheepdog trials at national level as well as breeding and training sheepdogs
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