Charles Sercombe prides himself on putting performance recording and genetics at the heart of flock development, as Ben Pike finds out.
People used to tell Charles Sercombe it would be impossible to start farming on his own.
He says: “I like to prove people wrong. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I try to show them I can.”
This was back in the 1980s when he was leaving college to focus on agriculture. Now, he manages an expanding sheep business in Leicestershire and has proved people wrong along the way.
Charles and his wife Helen live with their son and two daughters on Sandlands Farm, Frisby on the Wreake, near Melton Mobray.
Alongside the 40-hectare (100-acre) county council tenancy, the Sercombes rent about 80ha (200 acres) of land under various grazing agreements and farm 38ha (94 acres) on a five-year Farm Business Tenancy.
At Baggrave Farm, eight miles from the family home, is a further 202ha (500-acre) share-farming agreement, where most of the commercial sheep operation is run from.
Charles, who is the NFU’s livestock chairman, says: “I left Brooksby College in 1986 with a car worth £1,500, about £750 in cash and I was £1,000 overdrawn.
“I could have gone back to the family farm in Earl Shilton, but instead I went to work on a mixed beef, sheep and arable farm. There was more opportunity for me to learn about sheep doing day-to-day farm management with the owner than if I went home, so I learned from him and from my mistakes.”
Being on-farm and earning money gave Charles the opportunity to run his own flock. He approached the bank for a £6,000 loan and bought four pedigree Charollais ewes and some commercial sheep, which formed the basis of the flock he has today.
After building his Charollais numbers up to 50, Charles set up a business selling bull semen and, later on, artificial insemination to the cattle industry. When this business was bought-out in 1995 he used the money to develop his sheep business further before going to work for sheep farmer Noel Baseley who ran a flock of Lleyns.
Charles says: “Noel wanted help lambing, but we got on well so I worked with him for three years shepherding. Land for my own sheep was hard to come by, but then we heard about Sandlands Farm becoming available so saved up, got the tenancy and came here in March 1999.”
The business is now set up into two distinct specialties – the development and sale of pedigree Charollais and Lleyns as breeding stock and commercial lamb sales.
He says: “I first started looking at Charollais because I was impressed by their fleshing and when we sold the first few rams for breeding my customers said the lambs being produced weighed a lot heavier than they looked which is exactly what I had found.
“We now have about 150 pure ewes with five stock rams and concentrate on selling six or seven pedigree ram lambs to other pedigree breeders each year. We also sell about 60 shearling rams direct from the farm.
“We retain half of the ewe lambs – some come back into the flock as replacements and then we tend to sell in-lamb shearling ewes every October.”
Charles also uses the Charollais on his Lleyn ewes to produce a stronger lamb for fattening.
“Charollais is the number one easy-lambing terminal sire breed around. Lambs grow quickly and flesh up naturally and can be marketed at a range of weights. You can sell them finished at 12 weeks in good condition or you can sell some through to 12 months which are still on spec so are versatile for selling on.”
Charles’ confidence has been backed up by the first two batches of lambs sent to the Two Sisters abattoir, St Merrian, this year, of which 185 of the 270 sent to slaughter achieved an E or U carcase grade.
Charles believes this is the result of a strong terminal sire being put on an efficient commercial sheep in the Lleyn.
He says: “We bought our first 100 Lleyns in 2000 and within five years we were lambing 500, either pure-bred or to a Charollais sire.
“The Lleyn has potential to be the dominant maternal breed in this country. It is small, efficient and can produce more than its own bodyweight in lambs without big costs, but I still think there is work to do to make them a bit tougher and last longer.
“If you can put a good terminal sire on a Lleyn, you can hit the ideal specification for what the processors are wanting in large numbers over a long time.”
His target is to sell 3,000 commercial lambs from the Baggrave site while retaining an elite nucleus herd of pedigree Charollais and Lleyns with a high health status at Sandlands.
To achieve this, Charles is putting biosecurity, performance recording and genetics at the heart of everything he does, and has appointed a full-time member of staff in Chris Deptford to ensure the sheep are looked after to the highest possible standard.
Charles says: “Chris is a top-class stockman who is conscientious and makes my life very easy as I’m away from the farm on NFU business a lot and need someone to keep everything running well.
“Like most sheep farmers, I am really worried about disease – it could be an exotic disease which closes our export market or an endemic disease which costs the industry money.
“On the farm we are looking at feet, checking for mastitis, conducting faecal egg counts to look for worms and wormer resistance and we’re monitoring fluke.
“We have a flock health plan and have the vet out twice a year. Our sheep are vaccinated against pasteurella and clostridia and we vaccinate for toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion in the commercial flock.”
To record flock data, the Sercombes use an EID reader as part of the every day management of the sheep. This visually gives ewes and lambs a score at lambing, noting the maternal instincts and milk of his mothers and the vigour and vitality of the lambs.
All the data is input into a computer to allow decisions to be made over which sheep should be retained in the flock as replacements.
Charles says he only wants the best. “I want a terminal sire which will grow with loads of muscle and the right level of fat. I want a maternal ewe which is prolific, milky, never lame or have mastitis and which lives for five years, retaining good body throughout its life.
“Obviously, this is not easy to achieve, but it is my target.”
Charles is sticking to his belief genetics, not management, should be the key driving force behind the industry.
“An animal’s genetics stay with it for life to be passed on, whereas excessive feeding soon disappears never to seen again.
“I think performance recording and management will have a greater bearing on the industry than the showring.
“Although I use showing as a really good way to promote my sheep, I don’t think it is the way to develop the industry.
“Show competitions tend to encourage fat sheep but they are the wrong type for the customer. We should be breeding sheep for the commercial environment and produce sheep the end user will benefit from, whether it is by maternal performance or carcase quality.
“Our goal here is to produce sheep which have top performance figure, a sound structural type and showring style. These attributes along with a deep pedigree undoubtedly produce the most sought after and valuable animals.”
In 2009, Charles joined forces with two other sheep breeders to import 150 Norwegian White ewes and a handful of pedigree rams.
They had read a lot about the performance of sheep in their native country and wanted to put them to the test. But reproducing the same environment the sheep had been used to in Norway was difficult.
Charles says: “They hadn’t been exposed to the UK where there are worms, fluke, diseases and foot rot, so it has taken them a while to adjust to our conditions.
“For me, the jury is out. We are trying to introduce and select for different traits and some breeders have had some good success, but if I carry on working with them it will probably be five years before we are where we need to be with them.”