Case Study: Kate Robinson

1st December 2014

This article, featuring Kate Robinson, first appeared in the December/January edition of Sheep Farmer magazine. Kate (24), who is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador, is employed as a shepherd by P.G. and C.P. Whitehouse of Bradley Farm in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, taking an active role with the breeding flock and store lamb finishing enterprises. The business also has large-scale arable, beef and milking goat units.

We run a closed flock of 1,000 breeding ewes, which consist of pedigree Lleyns, pedigree Charollais and a commercial flock of Charollais-Lleyn crosses aimed at producing finished lambs. We lamb the majority of our Charollais and crosses indoors in January with the aim to meet the early finished lamb market, and follow in March with our Lleyn flock. We find the maternal traits of the Lleyn crossed with the Charollais works well for us in the fat lamb sector, but appreciate there are other equally good crosses for lowland flocks.

As a farm we like to embrace new technology. Although it often comes with glitches for a period of time, it allows the opportunity to enhance and tailor it to suit the farm. EID recording is often frustrating and time consuming with few immediate results compared to the sense of achievement found in drenching sheep, for example – but with added pressures from the Government and other sources, useful technology is needed within the industry for the future.

The positives for us include easily meeting farm assurance standards and aiding the development of our flock health plan. Although I believe it’s important to not entirely rely on figures and lose sight of a good traditional breeding ewe, I also think the ease of recording will be utilised in the future to improve the quality of the ewes we produce to another level.

Another useful development in technology for us is mobile sheep handling systems, which have been crucial to the development of our flock. The farm itself is just under 1,000 acres but we have 15 different landlords with all the rented land we manage. This allows us to keep enough sheep to have efficiencies of scale, but as they are kept on multiple holdings, the furthest being around 14 miles away, the handling system allows us to be able to physically do it.

Mobility without the sheep handling system would be more of an exaggerated issue for us later in the year when we buy store lambs. This year we have bought just under 2,000 store lambs, which are sold straight to slaughter through the nearby May Hill Collection Centre.

One of the questions many would ask is why take such large risks in a market which is known to fluctuate so rapidly. For us the store lambs are used largely to complement our arable rotation, a demand we would struggle to meet with our breeding ewes alone.

From a financial perspective, to employ a full-time shepherd on the farm the work available must justify that employment throughout the year. The store lambs help facilitate this, but the price needs to be such that a living and profit can be made. The price of buying store lambs this year is around the same as last year, but the finished price is starting to increase compared to last year, hopefully offering a better return. I also spend a lot of time on the tractor at harvest and lend a hand at different times of the year with different jobs. That improves my efficiency as an employee.

When considering the future for young shepherds, it’s ever more important for flocks to be productive businesses. For that reason I believe it is important that opportunities for young, interested and active people remain. I came from a non-farming background and started my full time employment as a shepherd with a degree in criminology and psychology! My interest in animals and farming has been encouraged from a young age however, and weekend sheep work experience as a teenager with the Whitehouse’s and part time employment within their goat enterprise have given me the opportunity to enter the sheep sector.

Not every individual has the opportunity to develop a flock of their own through financial and industry related inhibitors, but I believe the future of sheep farming can continue successfully through new partnerships and employment arrangements not previously considered within the traditional sheep farmer image. For this to continue I feel it is important that the sector as a whole remains open and encourages young people, giving them the opportunities similar to those I have received.