With environmental considerations at the heart of management decisions on his Shropshire farm, Hugh Pocock set about finding the best livestock for the job. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
After 16 years in the genetics industry, Hugh Pocock was ready for a new challenge.
With a lifelong passion for livestock, he was keen to grow his fledgling farming business, so when the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy came along it enabled him to do just that – and launch a farm-based recruitment business too.
Hugh had worked for Cogent since completing his degree in agriculture at Harper Adams in 2001 and the company had given him a varied and challenging career. He progressed through roles, including progeny evaluator and sire analyst to head of genetics and UK sales manager.
Hugh says: “When I joined it was a relatively small company, but extremely ambitious and there was a lot of passion and foresight.
“It was always in my thoughts that I would love to farm but I never thought I would have the opportunity.”
In 2006 Hugh and his wife, Kate, took on a five-hectare (12-acre) holding and farmhouse.
He says: “We had a few sheep. It was a lot of fun and helped satisfy my hunger for having my own livestock.”
This continued for a decade and during this time, they also ran a successful butchers shop which marketed their lambs all alongside Hugh’s day-job with Cogent.
Then in 2016 the opportunity came for the couple to take on a bigger farm, when the tenancy for the 60ha (150-acre) Corra Common Farm, Whitchurch, became available. Together with the voluntary redundancy, it was their chance to expand the farming business.
Part of a large family estate, the farm is a combination of traditional pasture with old grass leys and improved grassland. The traditional land, around 40ha (100 acres), has not been ploughed for many years and Hugh and his landlord were keen to continue managing it in an environmentally friendly way to maintain the species-rich old swards, hedgerows and trees.
It is under a mid-tier Countryside Stewardship agreement, so restrictions include use of fertiliser, herbicides and it cannot be cut before July 1. Management options on the improved pasture is freer however, so it is possible to re-seed, apply slurry and other inputs.
“Taking voluntary redundancy was exciting and probably a little nerve-wracking because I didn’t know what was in front of me,” Hugh says. But I was prepared to take that plunge – everyone needs a nudge sometimes and that’s what it gave me.”
A redundancy payment gave him some security while also allowing some additional investment in the farm. This included more livestock and infrastructure such as concrete, fencing and tracks.
“One thing that made the farm stack up for us was heifer rearing,” says Hugh. “My brother-in-law, Ed Seaton, has the renowned Styche Holstein herd. He needed someone to rear heifers for him as he wanted more control over rearing.
“We created an agreement that we would look after those animals, not just on a bed and breakfast arrangement, but the two of us together. It gave us the foundation for our farm business tenancy application, ensuring that we had a baseline income coming in.”
The heifers arrive at 12 weeks of age and stay until they are a month away from calving.
“We are aiming to calve at 22 months of age,” says Hugh.
“The genetics allow this along with the way that they are fed. We now have a finely tuned system that works well.”
The heifers are mostly fully housed, although Hugh has started doing some paddock grazing with some on improved pasture this year.
“The farm was previously home to small dairy herd, so it had three cubicle sheds suitable for the heifers,” Hugh says.
Sexed semen is used on all the heifers, and Hugh says that heat detection collars have proven to be invaluable.
At any one time there are 120 heifers on-farm, with batches moving round the system every 21 days.
The flock of 40 Lleyn ewes started at the previous holding all moved to Corra Common. Hugh had also started producing some Texel and Texel-cross for the shop, but with the new farm and then Brexit on the horizon he decided he needed a change of direction.
“I wanted a bigger flock of sheep that was easier to manage,” he says. “I was getting fed up with lameness with the Texels and crosses. And at lambing time, I was always having to assist some.
“Investing in sheds just to lamb sheep as a tenant farmer doesn’t stack up. I needed to carry on lambing outside so needed them to be easier to manage. I also wanted to be able to sell high-value ewe lambs not just finished lambs.”
Inspired by New Zealand breeders who had successfully moved away from reliance on subsidies, he purchased 100 New Zealand Romney ewes in 2018 which he lambed for the first time last year.
“I could instantly see the benefits,” Hugh says. “I only had to assist one and that was a prolapse. Similarly, I only had one case of lameness and that was caused by a thorn.”
Fuelled by his success, he bought another 75 ewes and along with around 25 remaining Texels and crosses, his flock has now reached 200 plus 50 hoggets which lambed this year as well.
“I split them into two groups and put my two Romney tups in for one cycle,” Hugh says.
“After that I put in my Beltex-Texel tups, but only two out of 200 ewes had Texel-cross lambs as the Romney ewes and tups were so fertile.
“We follow what the New Zealanders do and are very strict about any lameness or other problems, ewes that don’t perform well don’t get a second chance.”
In 2019 the flock scanned at 145 per cent, which Hugh says he was disappointed with.
“That was following the big drought of 2018,” he says. Despite the horrendous wet winter of this last autumn and winter, ewes scanned at 190 per cent this year.”
Lambing takes place in the first two weeks of April to coincide with the Easter holiday for family help, with ewes typically weighing 60-70kg to produce 40-42kg lamb which kills out at 19kg. Single lambs will be ready in July at around 12 weeks of age.
Hugh says: “This last year we invested in higher performing male genetics so I hope we will be nearer 20kg this year. Depending on how many we have ready we either sell direct to slaughter or they go to a local market. The Romneys don’t tend to sell as well as continental fat lambs as they don’t look as shapely so it’s best to sell on the hook.
“All the lambs killed last year were R grades. They are right down the middle – exactly what the retailers want. If I had enough ground I would have more but 250 is optimum for this farm.
“We do have to shear twice which is a downside, however they produce a lot of wool [each sheep typically produces 6-8kg of wool each year]. It is higher quality than average so it’s worth more and leaves a little profit after shearing.”
Ewes and lambs are turned out on the improved pasture until weaning at 100 days. At this point the twin bearing ewes are moved to the stewardship land to join the singles and the hoggs.
“We have some fields that we couldn’t produce hay or silage from, and I wanted to have a few additional cattle of my own. They needed to be small and hardy to enable out-wintering and not cause damage to our ridge and furrow fields.”
Hugh was considering Dexters when he found some for sale that had calves at foot and in-calf to an Australian Lowline Angus in 2017.
The cows are typically 350 to 420kg and impact the ground a lot less than larger breeds. Calves are small at 15 to 25kg when born.
Apart from a short spell in an outdoor corral over the wettest part of the winter, they are outside all year round.
“They reach finishing weight at 26 months reaching carcase weights of 220-250kg,” says Hugh. "The meat is so flavoursome too with plenty of marbling.”
Hugh later bought a Lowline Angus bull which was the result of an imported embryo.
“The first heifers sired by him are coming round now,” he says.“It doesn’t stack up to have another bull so I am going to artificially inseminate them with Wagyu semen.”
Meanwhile his other farm-based business, an agribusiness recruitment firm, has been a big success. Launched in January this year Hugh and his business partner, Tom Marsh, have been kept busy from the start.
“Even through Covid-19 we have remained busy as the agricultural sector has still needed good people. We have successfully placed many candidates and are gaining new clients weekly.”
When I left Cogent I knew I wanted to do more on-farm and be my own boss, I can now indulge in my passion for farming and utilise all my experience gained in the agribusiness world.”