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Pedigree stock add to organic arable business

Five years after buying Mill Farm in Norfolk, Duncan and Mary MacGregor have introduced pedigree Beef Shorthorn cattle and Poll Dorset sheep and continue to invest in the business. Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.

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From L to R: Fred Playford, Leigh Nobes and Duncan MacGregor.
From L to R: Fred Playford, Leigh Nobes and Duncan MacGregor.
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Pedigree stock add to organic arable business

Integration of organic arable and livestock enterprises along with environmental projects is the central tenet at Mill Farm in Great Witchingham, Norfolk.

 

Duncan and Mary MacGregor bought the farm in 2015 with the clear objective that they wanted to prove it was possible to farm commercially and benefit wildlife.

 

Duncan, who continues his work as a contemporary artist alongside overseeing the farm, says: “The ambition was to try and farm with conservation in mind. We found this farm which was organic too which was a bonus.”

 

The fact that farm manager Leigh Nobes was happy to stay on in the role was also a selling point for the couple.

 

Leigh had been working at Mill Farm for 27 years, having joined soon after finishing studying agriculture at nearby Easton College. He worked on the farm through its organic conversion at the end of the 1990s and became farm manager about 12 years ago.

 

Duncan says: “It was incredible. We found we all had the same attitude and approach to things.”

 

Since then, Fred Playford has also joined the team to manage and grow the sheep flock and in the two years since, he has quickly become Leigh’s ‘right-hand man’, working on the arable unit too.

 

The farm is under a mid-tier Countryside Stewardship agreement with numerous options to boost wildlife, but the approach is very much to implement measures across the farm rather than in patches, says Duncan.

 

Indeed, their efforts with conservation were rewarded with the Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group award in 2019, with judges praising their integration of conservation measures into their operations.

 

The farm’s 405 hectares (1,000 acres) includes 40ha (100 acres) of permanent grassland.

 

Cropping

 

The remainder is arable land producing wheat, barley, oats, peas and beans, with about a third of the area in fertility building red and white clover leys at any time.

 

Most of the cereals are grown on contract for seed for Walnes Seed. Licensing land to an organic vegetable grower is a fairly new addition to the portfolio, made possible with investment in a 100,000cu.metre reservoir a

few years ago.

 

Leigh, who continues to do the primary cultivations on the vegetable land, says: “We guarantee them 100 acres every year.”

The Beef Shorthorn herd was founded soon after Duncan and Mary MacGregor's arrival to Mill Farm.
The Beef Shorthorn herd was founded soon after Duncan and Mary MacGregor's arrival to Mill Farm.

“I would like to be seen not just as an organic farm which is top of our game, but also performing well alongside the conventional guys”

Leigh Nobes

Leigh uses a flexible approach across the farm, using min-til where appropriate but full tillage where he feels it is needed.

 

“I do whatever is right for that field or situation,” he says.

 

Weeds are the main challenge on the arable land, however the team believes its success with growing cereals for seed demonstrates how the effective weed control efforts are.

 

The purchase of an Einbock Aerostar Rotation 12m weeder has been extremely helpful with this, says Leigh.

 

“Before we just used a grass harrow, but this is more aggressive if you use it right and at the right time it will take out weeds the harrow wouldn’t touch.”

 

Another recent addition to the farm kit was a Swedish Chameleon drill which is also an inter-row hoe.

 

“It is the only drill on the market that does that,” adds Leigh.

 

“It has been great when weather allows. It is not a wet weather drill.”

 

Livestock

 

Livestock is key to the management of the farm, says Leigh.

 

The long-standing herd of commercial sucklers, plus the newer additions of pedigree Beef Shorthorn and Polled Dorset sheep, both using the Red Hazel prefix, are used for grazing off cover crops while their manure contributes to soil health.

 

The commercial herd currently stands at 55-head and is a mixture of continental and native crosses, however the team has recently started using a Beef Shorthorn bull to start producing cross-bred calves.

 

The Beef Shorthorn herd was founded soon after Duncan and Mary’s arrival as they were keen for Leigh to pursue his ambition to run a pedigree herd. The breed was chosen due to temperament and ease of calving.

 

Duncan stresses that they have a ‘zero tolerance policy’ of animals which do not conform with the laid back nature of the rest of the herd.

Founded

 

The herd was founded with the purchase of a small nucleus herd from Norfolk breeders Nick and Andrew Barrett who run the Glenariff herd in 2016.

 

This included a bull, in-calf heifers and one cow with heifer calf at foot.

 

Since then, Leigh made the journey to Carlisle in 2018 where he purchased their current stock bull, the 2017-born Stonehills Lightning, and more recently to Skipton for the North of England Beef Shorthorn Club’s annual sale in November 2020.

 

There he bought the top priced animal, Sandwick Flossy Mocha, a dark roan heifer from Andrew and Caroline Ivinson’s Sandwick pedigree herd.

 

“I went particularly for her and we knew she would be an expensive one,” says Leigh.

 

“I’d looked into her bloodlines and she had really good EBVs. I’d spoken to the breeder too and seen photos. I had a shortlist, but she was the one I particularly wanted.

 

“There was a definite buzz around her. She had the best figures and a lot of people were looking at her. She is a good fleshy heifer with good bone structure, plus she was in-calf with a different bloodline which was a win-win.”

 

With 15 females in the herd at the moment, the plan is to build up numbers and eventually for the pedigree herd to outnumber the commercials.

 

“We expect to stay at around 60- to 70-head,” Leigh says.

pic 1

Sheep are a recent edition to the farm, with Poll Dorsets coming out on top when the team started to research breeds.

pic 2

Docility is a major focus in the farm's commercial and pedigree herds.

The cattle are fed silage made from grass and the red and white clover leys and a small amount of oats.

 

“With the Shorthorns we want to get to the point where we can select the best for breeding stock and then sell

the rest as stores,” says Leigh.

 

Stores

 

Meanwhile, all the commercial offspring are sold as stores, which is partly due to preference but also because they have limited housing.

 

Sheep are a recent addition to the farm too.

 

Duncan admits that he and Leigh were not too keen but Mary, who is from a farming family, was adamant she wanted sheep on the farm.

 

They started to research breeds and it was not long before Poll Dorset came out top for their list of requirements which included good temperament, easy lambing and being quick to finish.

 

Duncan says: “We are definite converts now.

 

“They are very easy to move around the field which is important as we use rotation grazing and they cope well with the variety of grazing we are giving them.”

 

However, it was the ability to lamb at any time of year which sealed the deal for the Poll Dorset, says Duncan.

 

“From our point of view being able to spread the workload out was important and meant we can fatten them on cover crops.”

 

Using teaser tups for a fortnight before tupping begins helps create a short lambing window of around three weeks, adds Leigh.

 

The flock is currently running at about 100 ewes and they would like to increase numbers so are keeping back some ewe lambs.

 

Fred is also developing a reputation for selling lambs to other breeders and any remaining go via Dalehead to Waitrose.

 

Lambs reach a finished weight of 39-40kg at 104 days average, says Fred.

 

“In the past two years we have only missed spec on three lambs and that was after the lorry was delayed by a week and they were slightly over,” he says.

 

“They are fantastic sheep to finish. For carcase quality I have not seen anything better. People often think of them as a maternal breed but I think they make an ideal terminal sire.”

 

Fred would like to get the flock up to a maximum of 200, believing that beyond that size the flock would have an impact on crop rotations and the current management of grazing.

 

“We try not to graze the meadows through winter to maintain the natural sward and species. With 200 sheep we would still manage comfortably,” he says.

 

Show team

 

The Mill Farm team was keen to show the pedigree livestock and had a show team at the Royal Norfolk Show in 2018 and 2019.

 

Like many other breeders they are holding out hope there may be some showing allowed later this year.

 

However, in the meantime they were pleased to win the ewe lamb class in the Poll Dorset Sheep Breeders Association virtual show last year.

 

Lambs reach a finished weight of 39-40kg at 104 days average, says Fred.

 

“In the past two years we have only missed spec on three lambs and that was after the lorry was delayed by a week and they were slightly over,” he says.

 

“They are fantastic sheep to finish. For carcase quality I have not seen anything better. People often think of them as a maternal breed but I think they make an ideal terminal sire.”

 

Fred would like to get the flock up to a maximum of 200, believing that beyond that size the flock would have an impact on crop rotations and the current management of grazing.

 

“We try not to graze the meadows through winter to maintain the natural sward and species. With 200 sheep we would still manage comfortably,” he says.

 

Profitability is, of course, a key measure to their success.

 

Duncan says: “None of us want to be busy fools, but the other most important thing is that we all enjoy coming to work.”

 

Leigh agrees and is keen to demonstrate the farm’s ability to perform,

 

He says: “I would like to be seen not just as an organic farm which is top of our game, but also performing well alongside the conventional guys. I want to be able to prove to others that we can be profitable and organic.”

 

The different enterprises working together is all part of that, adds Fred.

 

He says: “From my perspective, success is the fact that everything complements each other. If it is disjointed, then nothing works as it should. It runs through everything we do.”

pic 3

The flock is currently running at about 100 ewes, with the plan to increase numbers to about 200.

MacGregor Farming Partnership

  • Mill Farm purchased in 2015
  • 405 hectares (1,000 acres) organic land, predominantly arable
  • Soil is predominantly sandy loam
  • Wheat, barley, oats, beans and peas grown
  • Cereals mostly grown for seed
  • Land let to organic vegetable grower
  • 100,000cu.m reservoir
  • Beef suckler herds comprising pedigree Beef Shorthorn plus commercials
  • Pedigree Poll Dorset sheep
  • Winner of Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group award in 2019
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