Matt Geen and his father Bill have always been forward-thinking farmers – and now they are leading the way with a novel approach both to breeding their sheep and grazing at their farm. Olivia Cooper reports.
The Green family farms on the edge of Exmoor National Park in Devon, with land running up to nearly 427 metres (1,400ft) above sea level. Challenging enough in itself without the consideration of running a profitable business post-Brexit.
But to ensure a viable enterprise both now and in the future, Matt Green, who farms with his father Bill, is focusing closely on breeding low-input, commercial sheep, as well as managing his grassland to maximise productivity.
So where did it all start? A few years ago Matt became involved in a Sainsbury’s project looking at how sheep farmers can increase productivity through better grassland management. The project involved measuring grass growth regularly with a plate meter, as well as using faecal egg counting to reduce anthelminitic use.
He says: “We took 50 acres of unimproved grass that had not been ploughed for more than 100 years and limed it to get the pH level right across the board. We then split it into eight paddocks on a 21-day rotation, and found we could produce enough grass for winter forage as well as grazing from turnout to Christmas.”
Initially, Matt was grazing 150 ewes plus followers on the land – but the grass growth improved so dramatically that he managed to increase the stocking rate to 220-head plus followers.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he says.
“We realised we could increase stocking rates across the rest of the farm; we found we should be nearly doubling the stocking rate on reseeded leys.”
A fifth-generation tenant at the 105-hectare (260-acre) Great Coombeshead Farm, the Greens also own 14ha (35 acres) at nearby Barton Pitts and a further 69ha (170 acres) of improved moorland in a Higher Level Stewardship agreement.
In addition, they take 34ha (85 acres) of annual grass keep, having reduced his acreage by 121ha (300 acres) after the Sainsburys trial.
“We only cut sheep numbers by 300-head, which was quite a scary thought at the time. But the cost of taking on that grass keep and running around all that acreage is vast – it did not stack up.”
Since the trial, Matt has rolled out rotational grazing across his entire acreage, using electric fencing to move the sheep every three days or so.
“We stock at about seven ewes plus followers per acre on improved grassland, but it is quite flexible. I now just use a marked stick to measure grass growth regularly, and aim to turnout when there is about 2,200kg/ha of dry matter and graze down to about 1,400kg/ha. Grass is key – it is the cheapest feed we have got and we need to utilise it as well as we can.”
The paddocks are all quite close together, and Matt shuts up about 32ha (80 acres) for silage after initial spring grazing. He takes one big cut for the silage pit in mid-June and then makes baled silage when grass growth gets ahead of the sheep.
“Our fertiliser use is quite low – we average about 40kg/acre of urea across our whole acreage.”
Soil samples dictate the fertiliser required, with cutting leys getting about 75kg/acre of 0.24.24.
After cutting, Matt spreads composted manure onto the leys, and he reseeds about 4-6ha (10-15 acres) a year following kale or forage rape.
“We use a New Zealand grass mix with Timothy, designed for paddock grazing,” he explains. “It has early spring growth, is good in autumn and lasts about seven years – it seems to be particularly impressive when the conditions are not favourable.”
In a bid to improve the soil structure and reduce costs, Matt min-tills his seed and is finding grass-weed control is also better as he is not bringing seeds back to the surface. The farm runs 1,150 ewes, half of which are Exlanas and the other half Lleyns.
“We first started breeding Exlanas in 2006 as we were looking for a low input sheep that would look after itself,” he explains. “I have always been interested in genetics and breeding.”
The Exlanas lamb outside from mid-April, and the best 90 per cent are bred back to an Exlana ram, with the rest going to a Hampshire Down terminal sire. Matt houses the Exlana ewes from early January, fed on a grass-based ration.
He turns the ewes carrying doubles out about two weeks before lambing, and singles just a few days before they lamb, to avoid the lambs growing too big from the spring grass. The Exlanas average a lambing rate of 175 per cent, mainly on old pasture and improved grassland.
“I strongly believe that, heading into Brexit, the Exlana will suit any farming system, upland or lowland,” says Matt.
He performance records all of his sheep with Signet and has been selecting high genetic merit stock for breeding, alongside worm resistance.
“I have achieved what I want with the Exlanas and cut costs considerably as a result,” he adds.
The sheep do not need shearing, they are not treated with pour-on, unless in a tick-infested area, and do not suffer from much fly strike even though they are not de-tailed.
Breeding for worm resistance, while also taking about 120 faecal egg samples a year, has enabled Matt to cut his drench use by a third.
“That makes a big difference to labour requirement – I am saving £1.50 per lamb a year.”
Matt keeps all of his ram lambs entire to avoid the risk of joint ill and increase carcase weights.
“We have up to 80 inches of rain here and having open wounds is not great. Since we stopped castrating we have hardly had a case of joint ill and finished weights have increased by about 1kg.”
He selects the best stock to sell for breeding, with anything kept for finishing sold from early October onwards off new leys. Later finishers are grazed on forage rape or kale, with the final few housed on concentrates. Most grade at R or U and kill at 18-19.5kg.
“The Hampshire crosses finish faster as they have good feed conversion rates, averaging 19kg and with more E and U grades.”
The Lleyn flock is managed on a similar system, although Matt only selects the top 60 per cent of ewes to breed to a Lleyn ram, with the remainder going to a Hampshire Down.
“In the past we have selected for particular traits like mothering ability, udders, mouths and general behaviour but now I am where I want to be I use the overall index, as well as selecting for worm resistance,” he explains.
“Often a good faecal egg count index does not tally with a good performance index, but we are starting to raise them both. That is the great thing about breeding – I like the challenge. It is what makes me tick.”
Matt houses the Lleyns before Christmas and shears them for easier management.
“You can manage the ewes’ condition better as you do not have to rely on handling them. And the sheep are cooler and happier. We were one of the first farms to winter shear 40 years ago – we have to house our sheep or risk trashing the soil; there is a cost to both.”
Matt is considering reducing his Lleyn numbers in favour of the Exlanas, to avoid the need for shearing at all.
“But it is difficult to increase Exlana numbers while also meeting demand from buyers – including those in Europe.”
The Lleyns lamb indoors for three weeks from March 1, starting in individual pens before being moved gradually into larger groups. They average a lambing rate of 185 per cent and are fed a TMR with silage, soya, barley and minerals.
“When you are feeding cake and silage separately the sheep rush for the concentrates, which cause a spike in rumen pH, which is not good for a pregnant ewe,” he says.
“With a TMR they can pick out what they want. We used to have prolapses, but do not any longer as the sheep are more content.”
It is also cheaper, explains Matt. By buying-in straights and mixing his own ration it costs 18-19p/day per sheep against 30p buying cake.
“We feed up once-a-day and it takes me quarter-of-an-hour to feed 500 sheep.”
They are turned out about three days after lambing into large mobs to graze.
“We built a new shed three years ago so we can house them for longer – before we had to turn them out after 24 hours. It is easier to manage them in mobs rather than having them spread out across the farm.”
Matt creep feeds the Hampshire crosses at grass to speed up their growth rates and produce as much lamb per acre as possible.
“We want to get them away as fast as we can to free up more ground for the rest.”
All the lambs are weaned at 10-12 weeks old, with the best Lleyn stock kept or sold for breeding and the others finished on grass and sold at 18.5-20kg and mostly R3L grades. Each flock runs about 100 replacements a year.
Matt grazes about 150 dry hoggs on the reclaimed moorland, alongside 12 Angus cross Friesian cows and six Stabiliser heifers – a new venture for the farm.
“Stabilisers have a similar breeding ethos to the Exlana – they are productive, low input and easy calving with fast growth rates,” he explains.
“We will sell the females to other breeders and if demand grows then we will increase numbers. Farming is all about being flexible.”