A passion for sheep has led NSA Young Ambassador Tom Chapman to secure the tenancy on a county council farm.
Angela Calvert reports.
Although from a family of dairy farmers it was always sheep which interested Tom Chapman, 27, the most.
He says: “My father and grandfather both milked cows on county council farms in Warwickshire but that was not for me, I always wanted to be a sheep farmer.
“I kept a few sheep through school and college and I was gradually able to increase numbers and rent bits of land where I could to graze them. Sheep are a great way of getting into agriculture as you can start in a small way and work your way up.”
After taking a national diploma in agriculture at Moreton Morrell College, Mr Chapman has built a contract shepherding business as well as spending some time working on sheep farms in New Zealand and as part of the team lambing 5,000 sheep on the Lowther Estate in Cumbria.
He says: “These were both great experiences, particularly for learning about improving efficiency.”
However, the plan was always to run his own farm and just over two years ago he and fiancee Holly Hiscoe-Jones, who works as a business analyst, successfully applied for the tenancy on a 37-hectare (88.5-acre) county council farm near Eccleshall, Staffordshire.
Mr Chapman says: “It was the first time we had applied for a tenancy so I was not too hopeful we would get it but we put together a strong business plan.
“It is a good stock farm but not suitable for dairy, so at least we were not competing against dairy farmers for the tenancy. But it is in a very good grassland area where land is in demand. We have to pay a competitive rent, although we are able to keep the Single Payment money and, of course, have a house and buildings.
“Staffordshire County Council are very supportive and have a number of farms. This is classed as a starter farm but they then have some bigger progression farms for the next stage.
“We have a 10-year Farm Business Tenancy but by the time we have been here six or seven years I am hoping to be planning the next move to a bigger enterprise.”
The couple moved in the spring of 2016 taking with them 180 ewes with lambs at foot and another 80 ewes due to lamb slightly later. Numbers have now increased to 330 ewes and 100 ewe lambs.
The flock was originally founded mainly on Mules which were put to Texel and Texel cross rams in order to keep a closed flock. Mr Chapman is now focusing on breeding all his own replacements and keeping ewe lambs each year to increase numbers.
Texel and Bluefaced Leicester rams have been bought from Logie Durno. Mr Chapman tups ewe lambs if they are more than 45kg at tupping time and uses Berrichon and Charollais on them.
A further 28ha (70 acres) of grass has been rented locally and expansion plans are underway.
Since taking on the farm Mr Chapman has been working on improving fencing and the grassland which is currently split into about 4ha (10-acre) paddocks.
This year he plans to split some of the fields into smaller paddocks for rotation grazing with the aim of making better use of grass.
Mr Chapman says: “I would like to rent more grass locally if possible and get ewe numbers up to 1,000 before we move on from here. I plan to retain 200 ewe lambs this year and as we have quite a young flock the cull rate is low so we are able to increase numbers fairly rapidly.”
A key focus is to improve flock health and productivity and Mr Chapman works closely with his veterinary practice, Leonard, Lambert and May and is a member of its flock group. He is proactive about flock health planning and using faecal egg counts to plan a worming strategy.
He also believes in making best use of data and secured grant funding to buy a stick reader.
He says: “I try to collect as much data as possible on both ewes and lambs recording traits such as milkiness, ease of lambing and body condition score using the reader and an app on my phone. We are also hoping to get an electronic handling/weighing system which we can link in.
“It is important to be able to measure and monitor exactly what is happening in the flock. Analysing the data helps to identify ewes which are not performing and now numbers are increasing we should be able to cull a bit harder in future and improve overall performance.”
The main lambing period starts mid-February, with ewe lambs lambing in April. Mr Chapman buys-in straw and silage and an 18 per cent nut is fed pre-lambing according to scanning results. The aim is to sell 90 per cent of lambs at 38-43kg by mid-September and creep feed is used as and when needed.
Mr Chapman works sorting and grading lambs one day a week at Market Drayton and two days a week at Ludlow markets.
All his own lambs are sold through the live ring, with 30-50 a week heading to market during the selling period and last year selling at between £80-£90 a head.
Mr Chapman says: “I think there is a place for both live and deadweight sales, but I am aiming for the premium end of the market producing quality shapely lambs and there always seems to be plenty of buyers for them in the market.
Another source of income is training and selling sheepdogs, with most being home-bred but the occasional pup bought in.
Earlier this year Mr Chapman was awarded a place on the NSA Young Ambassador programme.
He says: “I am keen to learn as much as possible and this is a great opportunity to gain knowledge, but also for networking and having a voice within the industry.
As to the future, Mr Chapman is confident of cementing a long-term career in agriculture but is fully aware of the challenges ahead.
He says: “Obviously, Brexit is a major topic at the moment but I am not too concerned about it as
I think it will bring opportunities.
“What I am more concerned about is the anti-farming bodies such as the vegans. We have to try to educate the public about farming.
The NSA has a role in that, but also the younger generation of farmers can do a lot in terms of using social media and other channels to put out positive messages and information about agriculture.”