Mike Tewson is a first generation farmer. However, this lack of agricultural nurture has not held him back in any respect. Rebecca Jordan went to meet him.
Mike Tewson’s own experiences have guaranteed a stepping stone onto the farming ladder for a whole new generation of farmers.
He and his son Niall, 22, run 2,300 Highlander ewes and 1,050 ewe lambs across 425 hectares (1,050 acres) over three holdings in South Devon.
A multiplier flock is also run on a commercial basis for the Highlander, a New Zealand-bred maternal composite based on the Romney, New Zealand Texel and Finnish Landrace managed by Innovis, and the Primera and FocusPrime, the terminal sire hybrid managed by Innovis in the UK but underpinned by New-Zealand-based Focus Genetics.
Since he introduced the Highlander in 2010, finished lamb production has increased 42 per cent to 845kg/ha (342kg/acre). All sheep lamb outdoors and are managed off forage alone, even triplets.
In 2014, Mr Tewson was awarded Sheep Innovator of the Year. His pioneering concept, the Highlanders New Entrants Scheme launched three years ago and has so far successfully set up six young farmers previously struggling to secure financial security in the business. This year he will open the scheme further, with 850 Highlander ewe lambs available to go out on contract to successful applicants.
Mr Tewson says: “I always wanted to farm but would never have managed to get on the ladder without the help of Herb Vallance and David French. They acted as my mentors. I got the farming bug working at Herb’s in the school holidays and David acted as a guarantor when I first tendered for a pig unit on leaving Bicton College.
“I was also lucky in the early 1990s to get the tenancy on Crokers Farm, Ipplepen, Devon, from Margaret Maddicott. These key people showed faith in me and if I had not had come across them early in my career I would never have been able to progress, let alone have the opportunities and experience to set out on the career I had chosen.”
In the early days, Mr Tewson also worked part-time for other farmers to fund the grass keep required to keep his growing flock. He also diversified into timber 15 years ago. He was feeding and checking stock in the mornings and delivering timber later in the day. Southern Timber now employs 46 staff.
The Highlander ewe has been the fulcrum on which Mr Tewson has managed to amalgamate his interests.
“This breed performs off forage in a simple, straightforward management system. It has been selected ruthlessly for prolificacy, hardiness, ease of lambing, survivability and good forage conversion. It is the ideal sheep for those wanting to start out in farming but still partly relying on another income source to build up finance before they can be totally committed to their farming business.”
The flock is managed across three parcels of ground: 142ha (350-acres) at Kingswear, 138ha (340-acres) at Denbury, and 146ha (360-acres) at Crokers Farm. The flock is divided between Crokers Farm and Kingswear at lambing during April. Ewes and ewe lambs lamb outdoors and are segregated according to scanning results. This year, ewe lambs averaged 155 per cent and ewes 206 per cent.
At lambing, ewes are set stocked over permanent pasture and five-year grass leys. Stocking rates depends on grass quantity and weather. Ewes and lambs are drifted off to fresh ground in groups. The ley mix contains a little Italian rye-grass for cover, high sugar hybrid rye-grasses, 2kg white clover and cocksfoot on the drier ground at Ipplepen. Last year, just 12kg/hectare of urea was spread.
At harvest, 182ha (450 acres) are cut to yield 20-25 bales/ha (eight to 10 bales/acre). The Tewsons are seriously considering setting up a clamp silage system as 3,000 bales were wrapped last year at considerable expense.
These bales are available ad-lib to all sheep from when the rams go in. Ewe lambs and finishing lambs are also offered rape and kale. No concentrate is fed at any point in the year.
This is a closed flock for health purposes. Lambs are weighed at birth, eight weeks and 16 weeks. Lambs born into the Highlander, Primera and FocusPrime multiplier flocks are also scanned for eye muscle. The Primera and Focus Prime terminal sire is used across the Highlander ewe lambs.
Last year Primera and FocusPrime lambs recorded 30.7kg at eight weeks with and average daily live weight gain of 318g/day.
“Lambs are sold through 2 Sisters Red Meat (St Merryn Foods) and are paid a premium through an exclusive grid which is currently available on lambs with Focus and Innovis genetics,” says Mr Tewson. “This grid rewards producers with a premium for finishing their lambs exactly to market requirements and recognises the benefits of superior genetics with an extended eligible weight range.”
Five years ago the Tewsons were approached by Focus Genetics to develop a 100-ewe Highland multiplier flock which has now grown to 300-head.
They also run a multiplier flock of Primera and FocusPrime ewes. Those recording in the top 1 per cent of the UK flock are sent to Innovis for embryo transfer work. Rigorously-selected ram lambs move to growing units linked with Innovis which manages and prepares them for sale as shearling rams.