Last year, Morrisons supermarket supplied 10 West Country stores with ‘The Best’ lamb range sourced from Dartmoor Farmers Association (DFA). Rebecca Jordon reports...
Dartmoor Farmers Association (DFA) lamb is now available in 43 stores across the south west of England, which has resulted in Pete Mann, one of DFA’s fieldsmen, sourcing on average 300 lambs a week.
The initiative has been so successful, Morrisons has extended availability by two months to run until February 2020.
Sam Trick, Morrisons livestock and farming development manager, says: “We were introduced to Dartmoor Farmers through our work with the Prince’s Countryside Fund and our support of the Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, which has been ongoing since 2016.
“Sourcing local products is a key priority for Morrisons.
“DFA is a known and respected brand in its local area. Customers love that and the lamb’s great flavour.
“The association is great to work with because its members are always thinking about the end customer and ensuring the best product arrives on our shelves.”
DFA membership is subject to certain criteria.
Producers must farm within the Dartmoor National Park and there is emphasis on extensive management systems which should be based on native breeding stock born, raised and finished on Dartmoor.
Mr Mann, who farms at Great Dunstone Farm on the edge of Widecombe-on-the-Moor, Devon, says: “Dartmoor is obviously very popular with tourists. They love to see sheep, cattle and ponies grazing on the moor.
“Nowadays we are all more aware of where our food is sourced. Consumers are keen to buy meat which they have seen has been produced as naturally as possible in beautiful countryside.
“They certainly indicated their support last year when DFA lamb went onto the shelves in Morrisons.”
Mr Mann has been supplying Dartmoor Farmers with lamb for two years and has become an integral part of the team working to promote the product.
At the beginning of August, in support of the Farmers Guardian and Morrisons 24 Hours in Farming initiative, he spent the day in Morrisons’ Plymstock store promoting DFA beef and lamb and giving consumers a chance to meet the farmers behind the product.
Mr Mann and his father, Richard, run 400 ewes from Great Dunstone Farm. About half are Scotch Black Face which are reared on Buckland, Pudsham and Blackslade commons on Dartmoor.
They lamb on average at 130 per cent just off the hill from April and return to the moor soon after.
All lambs are weaned at shearing at the beginning of August. Those which have reached the specifications required by DFA go straight to Jaspers, the abattoir outside Launceston.
Any weighing less than 37kg liveweight are sheared, wormed, given a mineral bolus and paddock grazed across fresh leys.
No creep feed is offered and the Manns will pick for DFA, with most gone by Christmas.
“The beauty of the arrangement with DFA and Morrisons is the emphasis on the lamb’s provenance,” says Mr Mann.
“Morrisons understands its consumers are interested in the relationship between a British product and the landscape in which it was produced. The supermarket has adjusted the specification on its grid to incorporate the hill lamb, which does not generally grade out as heavily or with such a high conformation score as a lamb sired by a terminal sire.
“Mat Cole, who farms on Dartmoor and is also a DFA fieldsman. He spent a lot of time in discussions with Morrisons to find a compromise between what they required in terms of carcase specification and what we could provide. Now we have a lamb which ticks all the boxes for a product which could be successfully produced in a sustainable environment.”
The resulting enhanced grid specifications – as compared with the light lamb trade – ensures DFA members sell hill lambs to Morrisons for a significant premium at the same weights and time of year as compared to lambs marketed elsewhere as light lambs by hill farmers who are not members of DFA.
“Every Friday, Mat speaks with Morrisons’ livestock buyer Sam Trick and between them they set the price for DFA lamb for the following week,” Mr Mann explains.
“The beauty of this relationship is we know we are actually part of the conversation. We genuinely feel we have control of what price we get for our product.
“That price will reflect a premium for lambs produced within DFA guidelines and marketed in store as such.”
The Manns supply DFA with in-country lambs from mid-July onwards. These are out of Highlander ewes and by a Texel or Texel cross Charollais ram.
They aim for 40-45kg liveweight to kill out at 19-20kg deadweight at R3L or U3.
These ewes lamb at 180 per cent outdoors from the beginning of March.
This is the fourth season fodder beet has been fed post lambing as the feed’s high energy levels have resulted in a marked improvement in ewe health and milking ability.
There is plenty of grass aftermath for ewes and lambs, with about 32 hectares (80 acres) of grass cut to silage just once in mid-June as well as whole crop undersown with a white clover, red clover and rye-grass seven-year ley harvested six weeks later.
“We did base our in-country ewes on North Country Mules, but when I was working in New Zealand I was very impressed by the Highlander ewe,” Mr Mann says.
“In my opinion she is hardier than a Mule and, therefore, lasts longer. However, the main benefit is we are able to breed and select our own replacements.
“This means we are following a strict culling policy at the moment, so any ewe not doing her job properly or with bad feet or mastitis goes.
“I like the fact we can control our breeding programme and I can already see improvements in the flock.
“A big advantage is we have complete control of flock health because we now do not buy in any replacements.”
There are 100 suckler cows which are South Devons and South Devon cross Galloways.
A Stabiliser bull has recently been bought so the Manns can breed all their own heifer replacements for the same reason as the sheep flock.
Stores are sold privately or through Exeter market. The rest are finished for DFA which markets beef successfully in many local restaurants and hotels.
Mr Mann is keen to maximize use of the common to release as much grazing as possible for youngstock.
As a result, cows calve both in autumn and spring so dry cows can be turned away when grass is at a premium.
Cows are housed in cubicles. Calves run back into a shed where creep is available from an early age.
They finish at two years old on an average 1.5kg/day of a 16 per cent protein coarse mix at 280-300kg deadweight.
“We will try and increase the number of cattle we finish because DFA pays on a weight specification, not grade and there is the DFA premium,” Mr Mann says.
“This scheme is such a good idea and it works.
“Farmers have a reputation for moaning about prices they get for stock. Not so with Morrisons.
“We work together to ensure the long-term relationship is beneficial to both parties. We have more control.
“This is a simple system where stock is managed traditionally to make the most of the environment and landscape where we live.
“Stock travel a short distance to the abattoir, we are paid within 14 days from Jaspers and receive the kill sheet the same night.
“But the most important point is we feel closer to the customer and are successfully marketing a product which is more about Dartmoor than farming.
“It is a win-win situation for us, Morrisons and the consumer.
“With sales still increasing in store there is plenty of opportunity for more framers to come on board and sell their stock through DFA.”