Case Study: James Hamilton

1st August 2014

This article, featuring James Hamilton, first appeared in the August/September edition of Sheep Farmer magazine. James (26), who is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador, has built up a flock from scratch on his parents’ farm at Hadlow Down, East Sussex, and recently taken on additional grazing nearby.

I’m sure most farmers throughout the country would agree that grass growth has been exceptional so far this year and in complete contrast to last year’s cold spring, which was followed by a dry summer here in South East England. Lambs have grown well and we have just sold our first draw of finished lambs through Ashford market.

Our flock is based on Scotch Mule ewes, which are crossed to Suffolk rams with the best ewe lambs retained. These are crossed with Charollais and Texel rams. Most lambs are sold finished through Ashford market or privately via a box scheme; surplus ewe lambs are sold for breeding and last year some lambs were sold as stores early in the season due to a lack of grass.

Closed flock

This system and the breeds we use are tried and tested, but I am considering alternatives to enable a closed flock, complete control of genetics and a lower disease risk. One option is to retain the stratified breeding system with a nucleus flock of North Country Cheviot ewes bred pure for replacements and put to the Bluefaced Leicester to breed Cheviot Mules for the crossbred flock. This would maximise hybrid vigour but could possibly be a little complicated for a smaller flock. The other option is to establish a purebred flock of a more maternal breed, such as the Lleyn.

This said, I think that provided you make a good job of it, it doesn’t matter what system or breeds you operate. Improving genetics, grassland management and husbandry are likely to have a greater effect on profitability provided your system suits your land and skills.

I have recently established performance recorded flocks of Suffolk and Charollais sheep and I have to say I am a believer in recording, as the best looking lambs also have the highest index.

Unfortunately the Suffolk has slipped down the pecking order of the terminal sire breeds used in the UK due to breeders focussing excessively on heavy boned sheep with less vigour. I am trying to breed a finer boned, vigorous and more maternal type of Suffolk and I was fortunate to be able to source this type of sheep in my foundation ewes. I have also purchased a stock ram from the Kelso tup sales. I still believe the Suffolk has a strong future in the UK, both as a terminal sire and also to breed the ever popular Suffolk cross ewe, which I have found to be prolific, milky and rear excellent lambs.

A Charollais ram was initially purchased to put over the ewe hoggs to give them an easier lambing, but I have been so impressed with the Charollais’ ability to grow quickly and finish off grass that I decided to start a pure flock.

Here in the South East we seem to have two distinct periods of weather – the ‘rainy season’ in winter and the ‘dry season’ in summer. I have tried to adapt the system around this. Ewes are away-wintered on keep and brought back prior to lambing when they are housed. This gives our fields a chance to rest and, although the kind spring helped enormously, there was plenty of grass for turnout post lambing. In May we direct drilled a mix of fodder rape and Italian ryegrass as a buffer for drought to ensure we have good quality forage to wean lambs onto. We grew a similar mix last autumn and the lambs did very well on it, grazing out the fodder rape and leaving the Italian ryegrass, which was silaged in mid-May, making excellent winter fodder for the ewes, which will hopefully reduce our concentrate costs.

The NSA Next Generation programme has been a great way to meet like minded young people within the industry from different parts of the country, all facing different climatic conditions.

I am also looking forward to NSA South East Region holding two ‘fit for purpose ram showcases’ this autumn at Plumpton College on 16th September and Hadlow College on 17th September. A lot of rams are pushed for sale resulting in a shorter working life. There will be some forage-reared rams on display to give buyers the confidence to buy this type of sheep either privately or through sales. I will admit I have a vested interest, as I will be supplying some Suffolk and Charollais shearlings!

My overriding ambition is to secure a tenancy where I can expand my flock. The rental market is competitive, but I am determined to succeed.