A flock of 6,000 ewes is at the heart of the Armstrong family’s organic farming business in Northumberland. Angela Calvert reports.
Taking opportunities when they arise, being flexible and open to change has enabled Charlie Armstrong to grow his farming enterprise.
With his wife Jane, he farms about 2,428 hectares (6,000 acres) in and around North Charlton, Northumberland, which is a mix of owned and rented land, ranging from lowland hill to very good land and restored open cast ground.
Mr Armstrong says being prepared to take on all types of land on a variety of different agreements has enabled him to move his business forward.
In addition to sheep, there are 500 store cattle, 810ha (2,000 acres) of arable, and pigs kept on a bed and breakfast basis. The sheep, and all except 202ha (500 acres) of arable, are organic.
Making the change to organic was an opportunity Mr Armstrong did not think should be missed.
He says: “We started off by being in the stewardship scheme about 12 years ago and, in the first year, I realised the lambs were doing better, as nitrates had been going straight through them.
“There were a lot of financial incentives to go organic around the time and several big farmers in the area, including ourselves, embraced it.
“We are not doing anything new. In fact, in many ways, we are going back to traditional farming the way my father did it. Organic systems will not work without livestock and I now graze sheep on other organic farms in the area which no longer want to keep their own stock.
“There was also a premium for organic produce at the time and, even now, I have two markets, organic and conventional, which gives me more options.”
Mr Armstrong’s parents Charlie and Sylvia starting farming in Cumbria in the 1950s before renting a farm which they later bought near Wooler.
The family moved to North Charlton 17 years ago and the business operates as a family partnership. All land is within a 20-mile radius, but there is only one set of buildings.
Mr Armstrong says: “I would not want buildings in more than one place. The speed tractors travel these days, it is easy to move sheep around by trailer.
“We have a mobile handling system, which we use in fields when necessary.
“I do not take on any grass which is not stock-fenced, as moving and managing electric fences takes too much time and effort.
Mr Armstrong says: “The way we farm, it is very much a numbers game, which means there are good and bad years. It also means we have to keep things simple and efficient.
“We have five full-time staff on-farm, but my shepherd Mark Goldosky does most of the sheep work by himself with his two dogs, and makes 98 per cent of the decisions.
“We bring in a team of Kiwis at lambing time and all the other staff turn their hand to everything. It is a case of teamwork, and one of my biggest jobs is managing staff, as everyone has strengths and weaknesses to work with.
“We only keep correct sheep. They do not necessarily have to be young, but they have to be sound.
“We have an air-operated turnover crate, which we imported from Australia, and before going to the tup, all ewes have their teeth, bags, tags and feet checked, and are given a big crutch. This makes it easier at lambing time and they do not need crutching again pre-shearing.”
“Land is predominantly sheep ground, although we plough any which is good.
“As a grass mix I now use clover and cocksfoot which lasts forever and does not need any fertiliser.
“I discovered it worked well when using sheep to graze wheat off in winter and they grazed the margins as well which then grew back better than ever.”
The 6,000 ewes are mostly Beulahs, some of which are kept pure, but some are put to the Bluefaced Leicester to breed Welsh Mules and some to the Texel for finished lambs.
The remaining ewes are Texel and Easy Care. Mr Armstrong has had Beulahs for about 10 years, having first bought some draft ewes from Richard Evans in Norfolk, thinking they would last just a year, but they lasted longer.
Mr Armstrong says: “The Beulah is the only hill sheep which allows you to tup ewe lambs and this provides an additional source of income.”
In addition to Beulahs, small flocks of Bluefaced Leicesters, Texels and Roussins are kept to breed rams, and one new ram of each breed is usually bought-in each year. But to introduce new blood, 20 Beulah rams were bought at the breed society sale at Llandovery this year.
Ewes are split into ages before going to the ram, with older ewes starting to lamb from March 17.
They can then be weaned early and sold as culls while the price is still good.
The best Mule ewe lambs are sold either privately or through a local livestock agent, with anything between 300 and 1,000 going each year, depending on trade. The remainder, plus Beulah ewe lambs, are put to a Roussin ram.
Rams are put with ewes for two cycles and ewe lambs for one. These are then scanned as soon as possible, with any empty ewe lambs scanned again at a later stage.
Mr Armstrong says: “After scanning, we reassess ewe lambs. Some we may keep as replacements, but depending on trade, may sell some fat.”
After scanning, ewes are split into single, twin and triplet groups. Most sheep lamb outside, but older ewes and triplets are brought inside a month before lambing. In bad weather, ewes are fed silage outside, but otherwise get no hard feed.
Mr Armstrong says: “We find we have the same number of losses inside as out. We do not have the same tools as a conventional farmer.
“Organic concentrate is expensive, so we try to manage ewes well to ensure they maintain condition all year round. A fit sheep lambs easier than a thin sheep.
“Being organic, we take a ‘prevention rather than cure’ approach, but we can use medicines when necessary, with double the normal withdrawal time.
“Ewes are vaccinated for foot rot, pasteurella and clostridial diseases, and everything is treated with a long-acting product to prevent flystrike in summer. The fewer problems they have, the need for handling is reduced, which is all labour saving.
“We have pig arcs in lambing fields for any which need individual attention, and if the weather is really bad, we can accommodate a lot of sheep inside as we have polytunnels.
“We get ewes and lambs outside as soon as possible after lambing, but never put sheep out after lunchtime.
“We put plastic jackets on lambs and it is important they are put on in the pen at least 20 minutes before they go out, so we usually get the night shift to put them on during the night.”
Lambing is usually finished by May 10 and clipping begins as soon as possible afterwards, starting with ewe hoggs.
Lambs are sold deadweight all-year-round, starting in mid-June, and all go to Randall Parker, Llanidloes.
Mr Armstrong says: “We have developed a good relationship over the years built on trust. I am happy to work with them to meet requirements. For being organic, we get a 10-15p/kg premium for finished lambs and about £10-15/head for breeding stock.
“At the start of the season, I set the auto-drafter scale at 38.9kg to give a deadweight of 17-19.5kg. After weaning, we weigh lambs and sort them into packets of ewe lambs, small lambs which go furthest away from home or may be sold as stores, the fattest which are sold first and a middle group is finished and sold. What and when we sell depends on trade and the fieldsmen will come and sort out lambs.
“If the price is right, I sometimes buy-in store lambs to finish. It is all about playing the market.”
Lambs are usually finished on grass and forage rape, which is sown into silage ground, and sometimes, if the finished price justifies it, silage, barley and pellets.
Mr Armstrong says: “We have sown 150 acres of forage rape this year. Sometimes it fails and we have to sow it twice, but seed only costs about £9-10/acre. We tend to mob-graze the stock, putting a lot of sheep on one area, then moving them on to another.
“Farming organically means thistles can be a problem, so we top the farm twice-a-year and scratch lambs for orf. We use cattle to tidy up after sheep, but I would never go back to using fertiliser again.
“Initially, it did seem as if there was a lot paperwork involved in being organic, but I think conventional farming has probably caught up in that respect, so there is now no difference.
“Plus, on the arable side, we do not have to adhere to greening rules, so it has got easier.”