Lleyn Allowing for a Fully Forage Based Commercial System

E & JH Maylam, Elmsted Court Farm, Elmsted, Ashford.

Andy Stuart 1.3.23.jpgWe are a family farm with integrated enterprises of 400 sheep, 200 acres of arable and around 200 dairy cross cattle, which we rear from calves to finishing. 

Elmsted Court Farm comprises of 115ha of mostly grade three soils, with pockets of grade two.  Soils are predominantly clay cap with flint at the top of the hills, and light chalk alluvium on the slopping banks and valleys.  The farm is situated within the North Downs AONB in East Kent, between Ashford and Canterbury, approximately 500ft (160m) above sea Level.

We graze an additional 190 hectares of permanent pasture and stewardship species rich swards, some in early conversion.  The rented ground belongs to 15 different landlords with whom we have short term leases.  Most years we also have additional short term grazing agreements through the winter on neighbouring farms with cover crops and grass seed lays or dairy grass. 

We aim to farm within the three pillars of Regenerative Agriculture set out by Doug Avery – Economic, Environmental and Social.  We are constantly endeavouring to improve soil health, which we do by employing direct drilling.  Using catch and cover crops between our arable cropping which we then graze with the livestock, and implementing mob grazing to ensure fields are rested to maximise grass regrowth.  

As a family we have farmed in the local area for many generations.  There are currently three of us at Elmsted Court, my father and I are full time on the farm and my mother helps on the farm when we need an extra pair of hands as well as doing the majority of the paperwork, accounts and running a B&B.

The farm and enterprises have evolved over the years and generations.  My great grandfather and grandfather started their own flock in 1944 and from what I understand it was mainly a Romney flock until the 1980’s when my grandfather changed to keeping Mules, then Suffolk Mules.  My father took over managing the flock in the early 90’s and over the last 15 years has transitioned the flock to Lleyn with 6 years at least totally closed apart from Lleyn rams being purchased.

The change was instigated by two main things – because of succession of the family farm, our arable area declined and we went from grazing new leys in an arable rotation to poorer quality/less vigorous rented grazing so we needed a sheep that was relatively efficient at converting forage, and was not as ‘hungry’ – as in not looking to escape through electric fencing to find greener grass at any opportunity! 

In addition, my father hurt his back and we needed a smaller sheep that he could handle more easily than a Suffolk cross. 

mounts2 low res.jpgThe change in breed was also accompanied by a change in system – 20 years ago we were operating a conventional 6-8 week housed, indoor lambing system, with lambs fed supplementary creep feed, now we are a fully forage based flock lambed outdoors, which has massively decreased our input costs. 

The Lleyn fits well into our system.  They lamb on our Kent Perennial Rye Grass seed crop from the 25th March for three weeks, grazing the field tight to create an even sward height for the following grass seed crop.  Ewes and lambs are then rotated around the rented grazing for the summer.  Lambs are generally weaned at approximately 12 weeks. 

They are generally grazed on a brassica forage crop following spring barley from around mid-September to the second week of October, when we drill winter wheat.  Ewes return post-Christmas to follow where the cattle have grazed on environmental stewardship through the summer up until coming home to lamb.  Any hoggets remaining by February are grazed on cover crops and grass seed residue to fatten.

Our Lleyn sheep are currently scanning at 160% with no supplementary feeding on predominantly poor quality grazing.

When selecting rams, we look at the system in which they have been reared - how they manage their grass and sheep, their topography and landscape.  We are looking for animals reared on a similar system to ours, totally grass fed, not on super rich grazing.  When we look at the animal we are looking for a strong ram with a tapered body so the front shoulders won’t get stuck at lambing, but strong enough to hang meat on, square back, good hind quarters, out of a ewe that has had twins, and EBV data if available (although we are cautious how much weight we place on EBV’s as they are somewhat subjective to the rearing system and food available).

lambs swarling low res.jpgOur ewes are home reared replacements.  It is some years since we last bought in ewes/ewe lambs.  When selecting potential replacements, we tag anything that is a twin from the main flock and twins and singles from tegs.  We keep both singles and twins from tegs (shearlings) as we put our new terminal sires with the teg group so hopefully by keeping more lambs from the tegs we bring in the newer improved sire bloodlines more quickly.  We then go through these potential replacements later in the year and weed out anything that hasn’t grown well or has poor conformation. 

We have a strict culling policy, anything with a poor udder, bad feet or a persistent low body condition score is marked as a cull.  Any ewe that does not rear her lambs gets a purple tag, and depending on the circumstances gets one more chance.

We mainly record visually with blank-coloured tags and marker paint so we can ascertain instantly if there is an issue with a ewe. We are currently using paper records and uploading back to the office PC.  Mobile recording software is something I want to implement in the near future. 

This lambing season I am planning for us to weigh all female potential replacements at birth/docking, at 6-8 weeks and at weaning.  I hope that gathering the data on the potential replacements will help us to ensure we are making the right decisions about which animals to retain. 

We are currently selling all of our lambs through our local livestock mart, but going forward I would like to explore selling through some other local independent retailers, the PLFA, direct to slaughter or a pop-up farm shop.  Although the local mart is important, and we will continue to support it.

Looking to the future I am glad we have already made the transition from a conventional system to outdoor lambing, 100% grass/forage system.  Input costs remain high whilst the market prices have not kept the pace.  We run a very lean system and are constantly trying to focus on utilising the grass we can grow in this dry corner of the UK.  The type of grazing available to us whilst breeding a sheep more tolerant to parasites and improving growth rates. 

We are very happy with the Lleyn as they are lovely natured sheep, that are hardy, good converters of forage and generally do not look to escape too often. 

Stuart Jakeman

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