Forage crops play an important part at Briddicott Farm, feeding milking ewes, fattening lambs and sustaining a pedigree Hereford suckler herd. Sara Gregson reports.
Andrew Speed farms 448 hectares (1,100 acres) of tricky, red sandstone land on north facing slopes facing the Bristol Channel, at Carhampton, Somerset. He has rented the farm from the Crown Estates for the past 11 years.
He grows 204 hectares (500 acres) of cereals, with two years of winter wheat and one of winter barley on a four-year rotation, with break crops including oilseed rape, peas, oats and short-term grass leys.
As well as the arable crops, there are 1,000 Poll Dorset cross Friesland ewes and lambs and a 45-cow suckler herd. Forty-five red deer, 50 Fallow deer, nine Roe deer and 14 Exmoor hill ponies, complete the livestock numbers, grazing on hilly areas of the farm managed as a deer park, under a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement.
As well as Mr Speed, his wife and children take a keen interest in the farming enterprises, including running a holiday cottage situated at the edge of the yard. A full-time shepherd takes care of the ewes and lambs. One full-time worker carries out the general farm duties and there is one part-time relief milker. The children help out on the farm and regularly do the milking, which is usually done twice a day.
Mr Speed has developed his enterprises over the past 20 years, starting as a smallholder, but determined to do something a bit different.
Looking at the John Nix Pocketbook, he noticed decent figures for milking sheep and through good and tough times since then, has stuck with them.
He started with pure Polled Dorset ewes, gradually coming to the Friesland cross to produce out of season lambers which are prolific, produce high quality milk and good meat lambs. Sires include Suffolk, Charollais and Beltex.
“We do our sheep a little differently from other milk producers,” Mr Speed explains. “We lamb in three tight periods, at the end of November, the end of February and mid-May, for a total of 10-and-a-half weeks each year. We rear all the lambs on their mothers for five to six weeks, giving them the greatest start in life.
“Lambs born in November spend the first two weeks indoors and then have three to four weeks on pasture before weaning and finishing off indoors on creep feed. February-born lambs are weaned and finished outside on grass with some creep offered. Lambs born in May finish just off grazed grass.
“Many other producers treat their sheep like dairy cows, taking the lambs straight away and artificially rearing them. But we put an equal emphasis on milk and meat production.
“Our lambs go mainly to Dunbia deadweight and kill out at 18.3kg, grading 40 per cent E, U and 59 per cent R for conformation. To my mind, lamb is an important part of the enterprise, and we need to make the most of them by treating them as a legitimate output.”
Most of the milk is sold to local farmer David Baker at Styles Farm, who processes it into chocolate, vanilla, strawberry or blueberry ice cream. He sells it at West Country shows and festivals, including Glastonbury.
Two-thirds of the sheep milk is sold fresh and the rest is frozen and sold to yoghurt-making customers who prefer to take it that way.
The milk sells for between £1 and £1.20/litre, which at an average yield of 200 litres/ewe – can return £2,900\hectare (£1,173/acre), at a stocking rate of 14.5 ewes/ha.
“The great thing about this system is its flexibility,” says Mr Speed. “If other milk buyers suddenly come forward, I can wean some of the lambs sooner to boost milk production; if milk sales are slow, they can stay on the ewes a little longer.”
All the ewes have been recorded by electronic identification (EID) for the past five years and are culled hard for poor feet and lameness and mastitis. Using the data collected, Mr Speed and William, the shepherd, have identified the top 3 per cent performing ewes to produce an elite flock, which will help progress the genetics and performance of the enterprise. The next step is to identify ewes most naturally resistant to worms and breed them to AI in future, to breed resistance into the flock.
The ewes and lambs are housed and fed a complete diet mixed and delivered by forage wagon in winter, consisting of lucerne and maize silage, soya and home-grown rolled barley, oats or peas.
Mr Speed restarted growing lucerne four years ago after a 20-year gap, and says the sheep prefer it to any other silage.
Grown on eight hectares (20 acres), the lucerne fields are taken out of the four-year arable rotation and left in for five to six years. They build fertility by fixing nitrogen from the air and aid soil structure by creating vertical drainage channels.
The Luzelle lucerne is drilled in early to mid-summer, into soil which has been limed to bring the pH up to 7, deep sub-soiled to break up any compaction and spread with farmyard manure.
Grass-weed control is carried out in January and 80-100kg/ha of potash applied each spring.
The crop is mown, leaving stubble of 10cm (4 inches) at early budding stage. In 2015 this occurred on May 23, but this year it was cut later on June 4. Left for one day to wilt, the crop is just rowed up – not tedded, to conserve the leaf portion, and picked up by forage harvester. The first three cuts are placed into a clamp; the final cut is baled. Yields over 13t dry matter/ha are common.
Mr Speed adds maize silage as a starch source in the feed for the ewes and in previous years has grown his own crops. But with fields not entirely suited to growing maize, he decided to sow a pea/barley/vetch mixture on 4ha (10 acres) at the beginning of April. A dose of 200Kg/ha of triple super phosphate (TSP) was added to the seedbed, but no other inputs were applied.
“This is our learning crop,” says Mr Speed. “We are trying it out on the advice of Tony Walkers from Oliver Seeds, who feels it will be much better suited to our later ground. It is ready to harvest 12-14 weeks after sowing, which means we will not get caught out harvesting maize in late October. There will be plenty of time to drill winter wheat, even after cultivations and creating a sterile seed bed.”
The leguminous vetch mixture will be ensiled in the clamp and fed out as part of the complete diet to the ewes and to weaned calves which are housed from November.
The suckler cows are outwintered on winter feed, a mixture of autumn and winter brassicas including kale, forage rape and Green Globe turnip.
Drilled in early July and given 300kg/ha of compound fertiliser, this crop is strip grazed behind an electric fence.
The cows also have access to strategically placed round bales of pea haulm, which are placed unwrapped in the field when the pea crop is harvested. They eat the one opened that day and lie on the remains of previous days bales.
This reduces any potential soil damage from taking tractors in for daily feeding during winter.
The cows are taken indoors at the end of January and calve in a seven-week block from February 23, which keeps management of similar aged calves simple. The winter feed is ploughed in before spring oats or peas are drilled.
The calves have been sold until now as 12-14 month stores, but from 2017 will be taken through as finishing cattle.
As well as 115ha (280 acres) of permanent pastures, mainly on the steep-sided slopes, which rise to 320m (1,000ft), which are used for grazing, Mr Speed also grows short-term grass leys within the arable rotation.
He currently sows Javelin, a medium-term dual-purpose mixture of early, intermediate and late perennial rye-grasses, with timothy and white clover, after winter barley has been harvested.
It is grazed by milking ewes for the rest of the year, and by ewes and lambs in spring. In mid-April it receives 300kg/ha of compound fertiliser and shut up for a hay cut in mid to late June.
This hay is made into small and large bales and sold mainly to the horse market.
“This is another example of a versatile mixture which really suits our system,” says Mr Speed. “It is early enough to get the ewes and lambs out onto straight after lambing, is good for growing young cattle and also has the persistence to give us good yields of high quality hay.”
With so many enterprises and customers to manage, and also hosting numerous school and group visits, Mr Speed’s days are always full.
“Yes there is always such a lot going on. But I love it and would not have it any other way.”