Running pedigree Hampshire Downs on a totally outdoor system earned Joe and Rachel Henry an award for the most-improved flock last year. Wendy Short went to meet them.
Very low input is the best way to describe the farming policy adopted by Joe and Rachel Henry, who live on a six-hectare (16-acre) property in Thropton, Northumberland, with their three children.
Neither Mr Henry, who is a qualified vet, nor his wife are from farming families, but it was always their ambition to farm and they now run 235 ewes on just more than 52ha (130 acres) of rented ground close to their smallholding.
An award for the Hampshire Down flock came from the AHDB Beef and Lamb Better Returns Programme, which is given to the recorded flock which shows greatest genetic gain for commercial characteristics over a 12-month period.
This is quite an achievement as the family only started keeping sheep in 2003. Their Signet records show the average terminal index has gone up from 129 in 2005, to 240 last year, while the average eight-week weight index rose from 1.59 in 2013, to 3.13 in 2014.
The 35 ‘Raburn’ Hampshire Down ewes carry a high percentage of New Zealand genetics, which helps improve growth rate and lamb vigour, says Mr Henry. It is run alongside a flock of 200 Romneys and Lleyn commercial ewes.
Lleyns go to the Romney tup, with females retained for putting to the Hampshire Down, alongside the Romneys. Mr Henry continues to work as a vet at the Alnorthumbria Veterinary Practice in the nearby Rothbury branch.
Hampshire Downs may not seem like the obvious choice for Northumberland and the Raburn flock was the most northerly in the UK, until recently.
Mr Henry says: “After a lot of research, we decided the breed society seemed like one of the most progressive, particularly in terms of recording, which we consider very important. Some 70 per cent of the UK’s Hampshire Down ram lambs are Signet performance-recorded.
“Lambs are small at birth and very vigorous and they grow fast off just milk and grass. Tups have good longevity; we have a couple which are eight and nine years old and still going strong.
“Hampshires have good eye muscle, which was a major plus point, as we like eating lamb chops. The breed is very hardy; their wool is very dense and it is not uncommon to see them with two or three inches of snow lying on their back for several days at a time in winter.
However, the sheep also have to look right.
“Recording is a valuable selection tool, but breeding stock must look pleasing to the eye. They also have to prove they are resilient enough to cope with our system. We had a tup lamb which fell into the top 1 per cent for performance, but he had a dirty backside and was not thick enough, so he ended up being culled.”
As expected, concentrate feeding is minimal and Mr Henry recalls one year where usage was zero. Multiple-bearing ewes are fed during March and first week of April, before being transferred to lambing fields. This is when feeding is stopped, to avoid mis-mothering, 10 days prior to lambing.
Lambing is necessarily late, starting on April 19, although it is not unusual for the region to experience snowstorms this late in the year.
Mr Henry says: “We lamb both pedigree and commercial flocks at about 500 feet from mid-April, but we lose very few lambs to hypothermia; a Hampshire Down lamb can survive incredibly harsh conditions as long as it has a full belly.
“This trait is a one of our Hampshires’ strengths and is coupled with the Romneys’ tremendous mothering ability. Nevertheless, most of our land is on a steep gradient and losses can very occasionally occur, when one twin falls down the hill and the ewe moves off with her other lamb.”
Lambs are weighed at eight weeks, at which point some of the best examples can reach 35kg, and again at 20 weeks. Selling begins at the end of July and beginning of August in a normal season, with everything marketed deadweight.
Finished lambs usually achieve U and R3L classifications at an average weight of 19-20kg.
Routine vaccination includes protection against clostridial diseases and pasteurella, because the vaccine is considered highly cost-effective. Ewes are vaccinated against toxoplasmosis as it has been a problem in the past.
Advice on foot-trimming has altered in recent years, but the Henrys’ approach has changed very little.
Mr Henry says: “We have never foot-trimmed routinely and will only intervene if the horn is grossly over-grown. All sheep are vaccinated against footrot, however, with lame individuals injected using antibiotics. Lameness has remained at about 2 per cent for several years.
Any bought-in sheep are quarantined to avoid bringing in contagious ovine digital dermatitis.”
Routine worming is also avoided through the use of faecal egg counting.
Mr Henry says: “Lambs with a count of 400-500 or more will be dosed, but otherwise, only lean ewes receive wormer and, in a normal year, this will be about one-third of the flock. These selected ewes are treated pre-tupping and pre-lambing.
“Nematodirus is not an issue because they are lambed late in the year. We annually rotate sheep with cattle to reduce worm challenge.
“As land is fairly free-draining, testing has shown liver fluke is only present in two fields which are not grazed with sheep from September to February.”
Virtually all of the farm is classified as a Severely Disadvantaged Area and most is rented on an annual or two-year Farm Business Tenancy. This is a constant frustration, says Mr Henry, although he is philosophical about the situation.
“The short-term nature of rental agreements means there is little incentive to spend money on sub-dividing. It would be great to put up permanent fences, but there is no way we could justify the investment.”
The rotational grazing system means smaller fields are grazed for as little as a day, with stock left on larger areas for up to 10 days. Electric fencing is used extensively for strip grazing.
The quantity of silage made on-farm will not sustain all the livestock over winter, so a large number of bales are bought in. The Henrys describe this practice as ‘buying in acres’.
Mr Henry says the farm’s overall aim is about ‘turning sunshine and grass into meat’.
A stick metre is used to improve accuracy when estimating grazing capacity.
The need to keep expenditure to a minimum has forced Mr Henry to come up with an ingenious method for winter feeding.
He says: “The contractor who bales silage leaves well-wrapped bales at strategic points around fields. When stock are moved to a new area, bales are opened and a ring feeder is placed over the top.”
In summer, a combination drill is used to reseed the feeding area, which has already been mucked by cows. Most fields are too steep to be ploughed and the remainder contain too many stones to make it a viable option.
Mr Henry says: “We have no machinery because we cannot justify running and depreciation costs. We do not even have a quad bike, just a New Zealand Huntaway dog and an old pick-up, although we have to come to rely on our mobile sheep handling system.”
The Henrys did not qualify for the Basic Payment Scheme because the business had been established for more than five years before the system was introduced. Nevertheless, the farm is run at a profit.
“Profitably is not high, but we have been expanding every year and all the money we have made has gone back into the business,” says Mr Henry.
“Because we are not used to having machinery, we do not miss it. Visitors often ask where our buildings are located and are surprised when I explain we have none. There is no plan B, so we just have to get on with it.”