Four years in, Clare and Rupert Hill of Luscious Lamb have finally got the break they needed. Ben Pike discovers how they are going to make the most of it.
It could be argued new entrants are exposed to the harsh realities of agriculture’s rollercoaster ride more than most. They have little to fall back on, no generations of farming family experience to call upon and often few assets or cash reserves to bridge lean periods.
Their chosen career is often a leap of faith into what has become a climate of volatility and rapid change.
Clare and Rupert Hill, first generation sheep farmers near Bicester, say they have seen some dark days in their first four years but a desire to succeed, some prudent business decisions and a touch of luck have brought them to an exciting new chapter in their Luscious Lamb business.
They have recently signed their first contract farming agreement for their 400-strong flock of Lleyn breeding ewes to graze a 65-hectare (160-acre) holding in Hampton Gay, Oxfordshire.
Since September 2012 they have been forced to grab every piece of available grassland, leading to their stock being moved between an incredible 21 sites just to access sufficient grass.
The handling system allows flexibility between the sites
That, coupled with making the mistakes of a young business, led to frank, challenging conversations between the pair.
“Every year after lambing we have a meeting when we are at our absolute lowest and ask ourselves if we want to do it anymore,” explains Clare.
“We don’t want to end up in the situation where people carry on farming just because it’s what they’ve always done.
“We’ve made an active decision that we want to do it and we want to have enough strength to make the decision not do it anymore if we need to.”
The couple began with 150 Lleyns and juggled first time farming around full-time jobs – Clare as a meat and egg buyer at Daylesford and Rupert as a catering manager at a local golf club.
“I am lucky in my career I have worked with many farmers on the theoretical side of farming and seen people do it in lots of different ways,” says Clare, who is also programme manager for FAI Farms.
“I thought it was so exciting I wanted to do it for myself. That was the motivation.”
The 200 Lleyn breeding ewes.
So they rented land wherever they could, often moving sheep daily to fresh pasture. “We had to beg and borrow – Rupert was knocking down doors to ask for patches of land to move them onto.”
Their first significant breakthrough came in September 2014 when Luscious Lamb teamed up with Park Farm, Kirtlington, to form a share-farming agreement. The largely equestrian operation provided predominantly winter grazing in return for joint stock ownership.
Security of ground plus the financial backing included in the agreement gave Clare and Rupert the confidence to double theirnumbers, bringing in 200 Lleyn ewes from Daylesford Farm in the Cotswolds.
But the agreement didn’t solve all their problems. “When you enter in to an agreement where sheep are part of a mixed farm and not the principal business, there is always the risk the sheep are seen as second class citizens, but of course to our business they’re the absolute priority," says Rupert, who works on the farm full-time.
“Being able to plan grazing was a challenge. I wanted to be very structured about it but you can’t always do that when other animals have to be taken in to consideration.”
The share-farming agreement plus the 20 additional sites the pair were still using throughout the year – some 20 miles apart – inevitably took its toll. But, just as the couple decided to scale back the ewes to 200, fate intervened.
A better lambing season this year has spurred the couple on.
A local land owner contacted Clare through sheepkeep.co.uk to explore the possibility of a contract farming agreement as he wouldn’t have the time to manage the whole enterprise himself.
The 64.7-hectare (160-acre) site provides Clare and Rupert with farm buildings for lambing and storing equipment and the contract farming agreement dictates while they are responsible for all the sheep, the farm’s owner is in charge of grassland maintenance.
“A normal tenancy would mean we are responsible for the grass and maintenance but we don’t have any tractors or machinery so that side is taken care of.
“We share a vision about the right way to farm, or at least the way we’d like to farm.”
Principally it will reduce the couple’s fuel costs which are currently more than £4,000 per year. But having a base where the flock can be mob grazed in a planned fashion will now allow the couple to fulfil their original goal of pursuing performance recording and a series of marginal efficiency gains which they hope will create a more profitable and less labour intensive operation.
With more control over grazing, they would like to get certified by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association to open up more options for marketing the grass-fed meat.
Their lambs have three end markets – deadweight to Dawn Meats, liveweight sales at Rugby Farmers' Market and some butchered and sold direct. The pair plan to develop the latter by investing in a catering van but have focused on getting the farming right first.
Lambs kill out between 17-21kg and carcases have typically achieved an R3L and U3L grade since they had access to better grazing.
They admit previous grades and weights were not so good.
Their aim is to sell finished lambs throughout the year, holding back some for the early spring market when prices rise.
“There have been times when we’ve been selling lambs for £50 or less when we have not had enough good grass and have had to sell lambs as stores it has been tough,” adds Rupert.
Lambing has been a challenge and a decision to lamb everything indoors in 2015 proved to be a mistake.
“We thought being under cover would be great but our breed is really suited to outdoor lambing. We had a 1.6 lambing percentage and a 1.5 finishing percentage that year. This year we learned our lesson and lambing has been at 1.75 per cent,” explains Claire.
“We look at the performance of every ewe and select our breeding stock from that, making sure we’re culling out anything that’s a problem.”
There are seven tups in the closed flock – a mix of pure Lleyns for breeding replacements and breeding stock sales plus Meatlinc for fast finishing lambs. About 10 per cent of the flock is replaced annually with any ewe lamb displaying lameness not kept for breeding. There is no strict policy for removing ageing sheep
but routine body condition scoring roots out older ewes not keeping up with younger stock.
One of the marginal gains they hope to achieve is by using performance recording. In 2014 they took on the management of 15 Signet recorded pedigree Lleyn ewes, accredited as MV and EA free with the Sheep and Goat Health Scheme at SAC. They are kept as a small separate flock with less attention but have demonstrated superior performance.
“We plan to move the whole flock to these higher health status sheep,” says Clare. “We were lucky we bought them in lamb and they turned out to have been run with a ram who is at the top of his game, producing us some great breeding lambs.
“We are members of the Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders group where we look at ways of advancing the performance of the breed.”
Lameness has been an everpresent challenge and stock are vaccinated against footrot and follow the industry standard fivepoint plan.
“We don’t really see footrot but we still struggle with scald at certain times,” says Rupert. “We have worked really hard to keep lameness in ewes down and we have seen this impact on very low lameness in lambs compared to previous years.”
They vaccinate for toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion which, despite its £9/sheep price tag, has worked. All breeding sheep in the flock are given protection against pasteurella and clostridial. Fly strike is largely prevented with a pour-on.
Triplets are the only members of the flock given any hard feed but the Lleyns are supplemented by hay and molasses when the pasture quality is not as good. Mineral boluses are used to cover all sheep because grazing is deficient in selenium and cobalt – evident from routine blood testing of ewes.
Clare admits when she first entered the farming industry she was naively optimistic, but doesn’t regret the path they have chosen.
“I definitely went in to this thinking that from year one it would be great and it’s clear now it takes a few years to get up and running properly. We were lucky our share farmers have continued to support us. They can see that what we’re trying to do is the right thing.
“Now we’ve had a bit of a break and are really excited about the opportunity that’s presented itself to us.”