Case Study: Sara Jones-Richards

1st October 2014

This article, featuring Sara Jones-Richards, first appeared in the October/November edition of Sheep Farmer magazine. Sara (25), who is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador, is a recently qualified vet who farms milking sheep and eat sheep in partnership with her partner Hugh in Cornwall.

I have cleared two big milestones recently – qualifying as a vet after six years at university and establishing a pedigree Poll Dorset flock with my boyfriend Hugh in addition to our Friesland dairy ewes.

Until now the main farm income has been from milking 100 dairy ewes twice a day, home-producing ‘Davas Yogurt’, a Greek style yogurt, and selling it to a variety of establishments in South West England and London. That changed when we bought in 25 MV-accredited pedigree Poll Dorset ewe lambs in 2013 and added another 76 ewe lambs and shearlings this year, plus three performance recorded rams. These make up our ‘Novellus’ flock (Latin for a new venture), which we hope to add more ewe lambs to later this year.

Dairy crosses

In addition, all the dairy ewes have been put to high index Poll Dorset rams for the last couple of years, providing us with around 50 Dorset cross Frieslands females, which will be put to Dorset rams again to produce a three-quarter Dorset ewe. All males are sold as prime early lamb.

I feel this is a very good cross, producing what I hope will prove to be a prolific sheep with good milking and mothering ability, while retaining the Dorset’s capacity to breed out of season and also throwing fast-growing stocky lambs that will finish and grade well off grass. Pure Friesland lambs grade poorly and are somewhat of a by-product of the milking flock, while this cross turns the lambs into a valuable and exciting prospect.

I have also been absolutely thrilled with our pure-bred Dorsets and I am overjoyed with their performance so far. They are hardy, quiet and superb mothers and I look forward to continuing to see how they perform. We have 25 Dorsets that lambed in spring and are back in lamb again now, and the rest are due to lamb at the end of October. The dairy flock will remain at about 100, but we aim to have the meat flock standing at around 500 breeding females in the next two years, increasing further over the following five years, so are looking for growth rates that allow us to lamb all female replacements as ewe lambs.

Such expansion puts a strain on our current housing, land and equipment, so we took on rented grass on local dairy farms for the first time last year, purchasing a quad-mounted electric fencing machine to enable us to stockproof the fields.

We sent the Dorsets and Friesland-Dorsets there in mid-September, will bring them home to lamb indoors and then send them and their lambs back shortly afterwards, remaining there until February. Hopefully a proportion of the males will be fit for sale either straight from the dairy ground or shortly after returning home. In contrast, the dairy ewes remain on the farm all year; their lambs are artificially reared and turned out after weaning.

Grass management

We need to maximise grass growth and  odder availability during spring and summer at home to facilitate high stocking densities when the dairy ground is not available but the meat ewes need to be flushed, the ewe lambs to keep growing, the milkers to keep milking and their lambs to be turned out – a tall order for a small farm! Grassland management is therefore a priority and we have begun a campaign of soil testing, liming, fertilising and reseeding. I also plan to buy a digital plate meter and we are trying some new fodder crops too.

This year we secured Rural Development Programme funding towards a mobile sheep handling system with integrated EID and auto draft facility and are very excited about putting the kit through its paces. I feel this investment will be extremely beneficial in data collection for performance recording of the stock and help inform breeding decisions and flock planning. The idea is to easily track and assess the performance of breeding stock and their progeny to highlight our highest performing animals and remove any potently underperforming animals from the flock.

It will also enable the sheep business to be run and grown with minimal labour costs. Hugh is principally full time on the yogurt so sheep work needs to be kept as fast and efficient as possible. I am working full time since graduating to help with cash flow, and will continue to do so (with time off for lambing) until the sheep we have bought start to pay for themselves and ewe numbers increase.

NSA Ambassador

Being part of the NSA Next Generation Ambassador Scheme has been absolutely fantastic so far. I have got a tremendous amount out of it and have met some lovely people as a result. I would strongly encourage any keen young people with an interest to apply for it; you really won’t regret it! I hope to be able to put something back into the NSA in the coming years, as I have already had so many positive experiences because of it.