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Resilience in the face of adversity: Family leads the way in sheep breeding

Starting with no land or stock of their own, Richard and Sue Evans have been advancing within the sheep industry, and in many ways have been pioneers within the sector. 

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Resilience in the face of adversity: Family leads the way in sheep breeding

Showing resilience in the face of adversity, the Evans family have led the way in sheep breeding, while developing a sustainable low input system at Stonehouse Farm, West Harling, Norfolk.

 

When Mr and Mrs Evans purchased their tenanted farm in the early 90s, it was small and unproductive but through perseverance, and support from neighbouring farms, they have created a viable sheep business.

 

“We have worked across and within the industry, to include contracting, haulage, marketing and exports, as well as butchery and organic certification and have combined scale with added value to progress, in spite of heavy borrowings,” says Mr Evans.

 

“Grazing is critical to conservation in this area, and we have been lucky enough to have been offered areas of land where stock is required. The combination of large areas of land, and the environmental schemes and BPS on our own land, have allowed us to reduce our contracting and consolidate our own breeding flocks,” he adds.

 

Sheep

 

The enterprise has 2,000 breeding sheep divided into three different systems. “We lambed 1,400 ewes this year which included the main flock, comprising 850 recorded high health Lleyns, and their female progeny. We have also established a flock of 350 Lleyn cross Exland and Easicare ewes, exploring the benefits of hybrid vigour and shedding. The third group are mostly Hebridean, which graze the hardest land,” says Mr Evans.

 

He adds that although the Lleyns are performance recorded, the enterprise is a low input system, lambing mostly outdoors from mid- February.

 

“The cross-bred flock has minimal inputs but are still currently outperforming the Lleyns on lambs reared by about 20 per cent and the Hebredians have zero input apart from in exceptional situations due to welfare,” explains Mr Evans, adding that they also run around 100 performance recorded Stabiliser suckler cows.

 

“The suckler cows complement the sheep enterprise, they eat what the sheep will not, which helps with grassland management and parasite control,” he says.

 

About 20 years ago, the Evans’ kept Mules and standard cross-bred sucklers. However, the new system evolved from a desire to improve year on year.

 

“We have had a good overview of the sheep industry in the UK and Europe through our experience in haulage and contracting. We were buying in high quality replacement females, but we found you could quickly see them going backwards if they brought in disease. A closed, self-replacement system seemed to be the answer, with performance recording on top to allow us to improve our breeding stock and consistency of the progeny.

 

“Typically, we lamb as many ewe-lambs as possible to broaden the selection process. We also sell yearlings as breeding stock once we have bred from them as another way of adding value,” adds Mr Evans.

 

Store lambs

 

They also finish 4,000 store lambs as a separate business. “Of these 1,000 are finished from our breeding flock and 3,000 are purchased from a local farm.

 

“The store lambs have allowed us to spread fixed costs and helps even out the variability of the sheep trade within a year. If the late summer lamb trade is poor, we can usually buy store lambs at a low price. But spreading fixed costs is the main advantage.”

 

Since 2004, the business has been performance recording. This has been instrumental in the development of the flock and while it adds to the workload, the benefits outweigh the time and financial commitment.

 

“The Signet information enables us to target high genetic merit females as replacements, select sires to complement them, and add value to our sales.

 

He highlights that they also measure what they call ‘farmability’ which are additional traits that we feel are important such as mothering, temperament and eye appeal. Improvements are generally transferred direct to the bottom line, as our kilos weaned or sold per kilos mated is constantly improving.

 

“Producers are often wary of performance recording and see the barriers of it being technical and time consuming. But, in reality the process allows you to gradually weed out poorer sheep and breed from the best to continually improve flock performance. In time this allows you to make huge savings across the enterprise, in feed and labour, as well as a steady improvement in animal performance,” explains Mr Evans.

 

Recording

 

“We are lucky to be part of the Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders (PRLB). This group is mainly made up of large, commercial sheep farmers who share the common goal of constant improvement of the financial and physical efficiency of the flocks, with the aid of performance recording.

 

“I was attracted to this group because it was led by some highly respected farmers, who combine science and data with exceptional sheep husbandry.

 

“Although we are all commercial farmers, there is an absence of a commercial agenda within the group. We simply want to improve our flocks and our main asset is the size of the database. This ensures that the accuracy of the data is as high as possible, and we can make meaningful decisions.”

 

The size of the group’s database has attracted the interest of the scientific and research community. PRLB are now participating in trials in the heritability of sheep’s resistance to worms, which puts the group, and their sheep, at the leading edge of the industry.


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Parasite control

Parasite control

Health, genetics and nutrition underpins the success of any sheep enterprise. The Evans’ have been particularly proactive in their approach to parasite control and have been faecal egg counting (FEC) for around 20 years.

 

“Farming organically led us to the mindset of treating on evidence not routine. We soon realised how little we understood and brought our own FECPAK equipment to monitor worm burdens and help inform treatment decisions.

 

“Fortunately, anthelmintic resistance is not a big problem for us at the moment, with mixed low stocking rates and dry land. But it is a huge problem globally so we regularly carry out FEC’s, to ensure we’re not running into a resistance problem,” explains Mr Evans.

 

“We have been working with Eurion Thomas from Techion for several years now, and we purchased the latest FECPAKG2 three to four years ago.

 

Speed

 

“The speed of the results means we can pen sheep, run a test, get a cup of tea while waiting for the results and then make a decision whether treatment is required or not. Operator error is eliminated because we do not do the analysis, this is done remotely by specialist teams with images uploaded via the web.”

 

He says the implementation of this technology allows targeted treatments with the correct product. This avoids unnecessary worming, which saves money while avoiding build-up of resistance.

 

“We are committed to selling sheep with enhanced resilience to worms, not sheep with worms with resistance to anthelmintics.

 

“We also individually FEC test 400 lambs annually and the samples are sent to the Techion lab in Aberystwyth where the results are then sent on to Signet to feed into their performance figures.”

Future plans

“We had to start by diversifying simply to pay our way, but now the stocks a little more established we can focus on them and our own farm. Continual improvements in performance is key to a positive net margin, but it also ticks other boxes for the future,” says Mr Evans.

 

He adds that efficiency is a key driver in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sheep are a vital tool in environment management. Grassland and cover crops have enormous potential to play a role in carbon sequestration, as we learn to become more of the solution and less of the problem, and this will open up more opportunities for the industry.

 

“Our children are in their early 20s, so we are trying to create systems which are sustainable for them too, as they will shape the future.

 

“The potential of grazed land to mitigate climate change and the need for sheep to manage the farmed environment which the public highly value, will help to ensure that, in spite of Brexit and red meat issues, that the future of the sheep industry remains pretty bright.”

Farm facts

  • 2,000 breeding ewes, 1,400 ewes and ewe-lambs lambed in 2019
  • Finish 4,000 stores lambs -1,000 home-reared and 3,000 purchased from neighbouring farms
  • 100 performance recorded Stabiliser cows
  • 101 hectares (250 acres) owned and around 1,214ha (3,000 acres) rented
  • 202ha (500 acres) turnips put in on arable farms to support store lamb enterprise.
  • Started signet performance recording in 2004 to ensure continual improvements
  • All performance recorded Lleyn ewes sold for breeding due to high genetic values
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