They say variety is the spice of life, and this is certainly the case for sheep farmer and part-time music teacher, Jonny Mattacola. Hannah Park finds out more.
Teaching music and drama, managing his own 300-head flock and contract shepherding on local farms may seem fragmentary, but for Jonny Mattacola, this is exactly the appeal.
Brought up near Leamington Spa, Jonny garnered a taste for farming when he was younger, helping on a local farm, and later working on the Bramham Estate while studying at Leeds College of Music, before qualifying as a teacher and moving back to Warwickshire to teach music and drama at a secondary school in the county.
Having moved away from farming after he graduated, it was after helping out a friend with a suckler herd on a neighboring farm that Jonny says his interest in farming was revived.
He started keeping his own sheep in 2013 and, now teaching part-time, has also been contract shepherding on farms in the area for the past four years.
“I like variety,” Jonny says. “And although I have considered full-time shepherding jobs or going into farming full-time, I do not think they would suit me.
“Farming brings with it a lot that I enjoy, but also a fair bit of working alone which, although is fine some of the time, is not something I would want to do every day. I enjoy the different challenges that working with children and shepherding brings me.”
After buying in his first sheep, a pen of North of England Mule ewe lambs, which he later added to with some in-lamb theaves from a breeder in the North of England, Jonny has continued to build his flock over the last seven years.
Last year, he tupped some 300 ewes, among them 135 Mules plus home-bred Texel cross Mules alongside 165 Aberfield cross Romney theaves which he bought in to tup last autumn.
“Mules are pretty ubiquitous, but particularly here in the Midlands. It was also a breed I knew, having had previous experience working with the them on farms I have worked on.
“For me, the Mule is high output/high input. Ewes are generally easy to lamb, milky and will look after their lambs well. They have the maternal attributes you need to grow lambs on well but do generally need some feeding.”
This year was his first lambing the Aberfield crosses.
“I would come to hear more about the Aberfield having bought tups from Innovis before and worked with them on different farms,” says Jonny. “I was interested to see for myself how they would perform against claims of being low input and solely forage-based.
“Obviously, while I could not leave them completely alone at lambing time, I am pleased with how it went for their first year with me.”
When it comes to ground, Jonny rents about 28 hectares (70 acres) of grazing in various blocks close to his home which had, up until this year, included one block of 12ha (30 acres) with some buildings for lambing from one farm.
But with that farm being prepared for sale and no guarantee of his usual indoor lambing facility being available, Jonny made the decision to sell off about 100 mainly one- and two-crop in-lamb Mules pre-lambing this year.
Without the shed space he had in the past, he lambed the rest of his ewes outdoors for the first time – his remaining Mule and Texel cross ewes in February, followed by the Aberfields in April.
Despite the wet weather, it went well, Jonny says and also provided him with some cost savings on inputs such as feed and labour.
Mules are mainly put to an Abertex ram, as were the new Aberfield cross theaves, although Jonny says he would consider an easier lambing breed of tup for the latter if he were to lamb them again.
“I would probably look at using a Beltex or Beltex Charolais for these as theaves, to promote easier lambing,” says Jonny.
Better Abertex cross lambs out of Mules are then retained as replacements and he is also planning on keeping some Abertex cross Aberfield females back this year. The remainder are finished off grass initially, with some concentrate offered later in the year as the grass fades.
“I am a big fan of the Abertex cross Mule. It can produce a good commercial R or U grade finished lamb, but the ewe lambs are well worth keeping too and will breed quality and consistent finishing animals.
I have also sold these with lambs at foot at Rugby Farmers Mart in the past, to generate some cash for winter feed costs. Cashflow is always an issue with just having sheep, in that there is just one window of income coming in.”
Finished lambs will be generally be drawn from mid-May.
“I tend to sell lambs to Farmers Fresh and find they generally achieve R grades, then I sell at Rugby Mart later in the year when they put more fat on. Obviously finished weight increases with the season, but I am usually aiming at 45kg on average,” says Jonny.
“Lambs are generally finished off grass until weaning, then creep is given to finish lambs when they hit 35kg or so, with the aim of finishing most lambs by tupping.”
“I have thought about selling stores but find the system of finishing everything has worked for me so far.”
Despite losing land and infrastructure, Jonny is far from downbeat and instead is well underway with plans to hopefully build a base of his own. He recently had a sale agreed on the purchase of 2ha (five acres), the first land of his own, and has several irons in the fire for other potential areas of ground he could rent going forward.
“Obviously five acres is not enough to build the flock significantly. But the point of it is to create a base where I can put up some housing, create some storage and so on. While I am not in a position to buy a farm of my own, buying smaller parcels of land is not beyond the realms of possibility,” says Jonny.
When it comes to replacements, Jonny has up until now always bought tupping Mule ewe lambs privately from a contact in Northern England each year, but with uncertainties as to how much grazing he will have at present, it could be different this year.
“I would like to build Aberfield cross numbers, with a view to lambing everything outdoors alongside the ewe lambs from this year’s lambing crop which I am planning on tupping if they get to weight.”
Jonny’s inclination though, he says, is not to move away from the Mule completely and he is hopeful he will have the space to buy some in as he normally would.
“There is no getting away from how sellable the Mule is. Everyone knows what they are, what they can do, and what they’re capable of producing,” he says.
“In my view, biggest is not necessarily best. I feel it is important that the original traits of the North of England Mule are not overshadowed by becoming a beauty pageant. In other words, breeders need to be strict about what enters the breeding flock and not just select on looks.”
The future though is never assured, and with uncertainties surrounding land availability, Jonny is weighing up his options.
“Long-term, I might look more into shepherding for other people on a more seasonal basis, for example growing on youngstock,” he says.
“Unless I find more permanent rented ground, it could be that I keep buying and lambing ewe lambs and sell them as theaves and end up with a more transient flock.”