Dorset sheep, pigs and beef cattle play an integral part in the sustainability of intensive vegetable production for one farming enterprise in Suffolk. Jennifer McKenzie reports.
Wantisden Hall Farms, on the North Sea coast near Woodbridge, comprises 1,351ha (3,783 acres) of predominantly arable land, of which, 768ha (1x898) is owned and the remainder contract farmed.
The business is owned by J.H. Kemball and Son and Tim Pratt has been manager for 11 years, during which time land farmed has doubled by contract farming being added to the arable area. There has also been heavy investment in irrigation on the owned land to boost yields of vegetables to increase output. Poorer permanent pasture previously not farmed has been brought into production for livestock.
Free range outdoor pigs were the first species to be introduced to graze aftermaths to remove potato volunteers and help in the control of potato cyst nematode – the biggest threat to what is the most profitable crop in the area.
Four years ago, Dorset sheep were introduced to graze the crop residues and such has been their success in fitting into the busy cropping regime that Mr Pratt has plans to increase flock numbers to 400 ewes, half of which will be horned and the rest polled.
A herd of 30 Beef Shorthorn cows also graze the green cover crops and help control bracken in the parkland.
Mr Pratt says: “The livestock are a good mix to fit in with everything we do here. We are a Leaf demonstration farm and having stock has brought many benefits, creating integrated crop management on our light, sandy soil.”
The farm’s permanent pasture and marshland is in HLS and its marshland is a Catchment Sensitive Area as well as a Site of Special Scientific Interest which covers Staverton Park, originally a medieval deer park, and The Thicks believed to be the largest area of ancient pollarded oaks in Europe, with some trees 1,000 years old. It is a habitat for rare orchids and rare invertebrates, as well as birds, including lapwing.
Originally from Devon, where his parents ran a dairy unit near Halwill, Mr Pratt first saw the versatility of the Dorset breed with its ability to lamb out of season when he worked for the Thomas family in Launceston, Cornwall, and he bought a couple of the sheep to establish his own flock.
Mr Pratt says: “The Dorset is very versatile and we lamb the ewes outdoors in September and October when there is a lot of crop residue from the spring greens which feeds both ewes and growing lambs. Because the land is light and sandy, we have no issues with keeping the sheep clean.
“Managing the sheep in the winter is very easy with not a lot of work. Ewes which are milking heavily are given access to feed in November. Lambs never have problems with worms or fly. Creep for the lambs and feed for the ewes amounts to two tonnes of home-grown barley plus pellets each year.
“The aftermaths, which would otherwise be ploughed in, are providing grazing which costs nothing and does not interfere with the arable rotation but is benefiting it by adding manure to the soil. The land ploughs nicely behind the sheep and pigs.”
As well as potatoes and spring greens, the farm also grows a large area of carrots, onions and swedes. The rotation on the lightest land is pigs, sugar beet, potatoes, onions, carrots and winter cereals.
Mr Pratt says: “From March to September we are very busy with the vegetable crops, harvesting and planting virtually every week. In March, by which time all the male lambs have been sold, we turn the ewes onto the grassland and they go to the ram mid-April.
“This includes land which has been brought back into farming – parkland and several marshes which is all in Higher Level Stewardship and we benefit from extra payment because the Dorsets are a native breed.
“The ewes just tick over. We do not have any problems with worms or flies and one member of staff helps me with them when required. The Dorsets are working very nicely for us. They bring in extra income from the lamb sales with little input and the extra HLS money.”
The land cannot be dressed with artificial fertiliser but the benefit of manure from the sheep and pigs is about £110/ha (£44.50/acre).
Grant aid from the HLS and being a Catchment Sensitive Area has assisted with fencing on the grazing ground. For flexibility, the arable land is divided with electric fencing.
The flock is Signet recorded as another breeding tool but most of the selection is by eye and this is usually backed up by figures.
To expand the flock, 90 per cent of ewe lambs are kept as replacements as well as up to six rams for breeding with the remainder of the males going for slaughter. This year’s 100 ewe lambs will be added to numbers with the intention of being self-sufficient, by next year.
To introduce new bloodlines from top rams, a number of the polled ewes are being AI-ed this year with semen from three sires. The double muscling Myomax gene has also been brought into the flock with the purchase of a gene carrying ram at the May Fair.
Mr Pratt is also looking for a ram to introduce new bloodlines to the horned ewes which have a relatively small gene pool compared to the polled sheep.
He attends the Dorset association May Fair sale in Exeter in early May where at last year’s event he won best horned exhibit at his first time of showing.
Two of the farm’s horned rams averaged just under £800 and Mr Pratt sees this as another income stream for the future. He has also sold rams to a neighbouring farm where they are being put to Mule cross Suffolk ewes to lamb traditionally in April.
Lambs are principally sold deadweight and earlier this year the lambs were grading at R3L weighing 21-22kg deadweight and averaged £90 a lamb.
The lambs straight off their mothers also attract a premium – both with local butchers and farm shops which prefer to sell the young lamb rather than hoggett meat.
Another outlet for the lamb is boxed meat sold directly off-farm with about 30 boxes of spring lamb sold each year bringing in £110 a lamb.
While intensive vegetable production will continue as the main enterprise on-farm, Mr Pratt plans to expand production in a sustainable way while placing emphasis on environmental concerns.