3rd April 2017
Thomas may be the youngest person on this year’s programme but he wowed the selection panel with the maturity of his knowledge and passion for upland sheep farming. Having graduated from Harper Adams University in the summer, Thomas is working alongside this mother and uncle to produce North of England Mules from a flock of 1,200 Swaledales on the hills of Weardale.
He strongly believes in the tradition of the stratified system and hefted hill flocks, but is also embracing new technology, be it genetics/recording or finding sheep on the hill using his drone. As well as balancing old and new, Thomas also believes in balancing production and environment and has a real interest in conservation and biodiversity. He takes personal pride in the increase of black grouse on the farm and wants to see the industry benefit from more farm-specific agri-environment schemes in the future.
Top fact: Thomas farms less than five miles from the host of NSA North Sheep 2017 and is enjoying being part of the organising committee for this year’s event.
February signifies the home straight to lambing time, when ewe nutrition crucial. For the first time this year I have attempted to produce a precise ration, based on the results from silage testing carried out in November. The combination between knowing the feed value of our forage and knowing the energy and protein requirements of the ewes, based on scan results and body condition scoring, has meant I have benefitted from no ewe suffering from twin lamb disease.
The annual battle in our farming system is the question of what to do with the remaining 500 Swaledale weather hoggs. Routine weighing has allowed us to select out the fastest growing and house them in order to intensively finish and we have now sold over 420 deadweight and only have 40 remaining.
Scanning for the main pedigree Swaledale flock took place this month, with an outcome of 126%. Our barren percentage was 5.4%, not ideal but nothing worrying as single sire mating groups at 1,300ft can cause difficulties for tup service.
With the mules due to lamb on 26th March, lambing sheds have been prepared and ewes housed over a week ago but a trip to Stirling Simmental Bull Sales meant I wasn’t present for the first lambs born one week premature. Lambing time is different and exciting this year too as I am expecting the first Primera lambs. So far this is going well. There is little consistency in lamb appearance from the Primera tup, but all lambs posses immense vigour and length and I have recorded some great lamb birth weights.
Lambing time is in full swing. In the first week, we had 80 of 170 ewes lamb and after the initial excitement of the first Primera tup progeny, we have continued to be impressed. This year I have created a performance monitoring system for the commercial ewes. It allows me to record every ewe, with emphasis on seven key factors: number of lambs produced; average lamb birth weight; lambing ease; lamb vigour; mothering ability; milking ability and udder conformation. The first two factors are physical and easily tangible. But the other five factors are subjective which allows me to score them from one (poor) to five (great) which enables me to produce an index score per ewe. This will mean I can identify the most and least efficient ewes in my flock. I’ll look to cull the bottom 15% of ewes and use the top performing ewes to breed replacements.
Away from the lambing shed we have been busy with horn burning the Swaledale gimmer hoggs. With near to 450 to do, horn burning, blousing and marking by fell is no small feat. With the weather picking up I have applied my first fertiliser of the year, a small amount of nitrogen to encourage the grass to get a move on. Hopefully we are beginning to turn the corner into spring, but I would be naïve to get my hopes in this part of the world.
Early born prime lambs have been wormed against nematodirus and continue to be rotationally grazed to maximise grass utilisation. Draft fell ewes tupped by the Bluefaced Leicester have finished lambing and returned to the hill farm, twins are grazing in-by allotments and singles have returned straight to their respective fells.
Lambing on the hill farm is in full swing, With nearly 900 to go, this is the largest batch of ewes we lamb in one go. Although being involved in many aspects of the hill sheep, outdoor hill lambing is relatively new to me. The hardiness of new born Swaledale lambs in snow and a wind chill of -6°C never ceases to amaze me. This was the case when we a started lambing. After weeks of warm grass growing weather, it turned for the worse almost simultaneously to us beginning lambing the fell ewes. Thankfully as we approach two weeks in, the weather has picked up substantially, creating idea conditions for the 600 or so singles lambing under my eye.
As we head towards May, the final preparations for NSA North Sheep are continuing. Everything seems to be coming along nicely and hosts the Smith family at West Shield Farm, Tow Law, is an ideal location to for the event. I will be overseeing the farm tours and giving a talk in the seminar focussing on agricultures next generation on the day.
Lambing Is finally coming to an end on the hill farm with only a few stragglers remaining. Our focus now turns to tagging and marking the lambs before allocating them to their appropriate hefts with their mothers. This can be a slow process as all the singles are lambed in one batch which means all hefts are mixed so it is common that more time is spent mothering the lambs to their mothers than tagging and marking.
The early born Primera lambs are coming along well and many have benefitted from a more rotational grazing approach this year. The bigger lambs, predominantly singles, are weighing around the 37-50kg mark, heavier than I expected. Although the Primera lambs have impressed me with lambing ease, vigour and growth my Texel lambs from our homebred mule ewes are certainly going toe to toe with the Primeras, it will be interesting to see if this continues once weaned.
Meanwhile our Mule gimmer hoggs, which have been given the best grass on the farm for a couple of months, have been inspected and deemed suitable to head to NSA North Sheep for shearing competitions and demonstrations. They will return from the event for a couple of months before their permanent move to Cornwall, to a friend I used to work for. He bought 100 last year so it is good to know they have served him well so far and he would like them once again.
June began with a bang with NSA North Sheep at West Shield Farm, Tow Law. Having helped with the organisation of the event this year it was really pleasing to see it all come together so well. I particularly enjoyed talking in the Next Generation seminar about my experiences on the NSA Next Generation Ambassador programme alongside two others who've taken part in previous years.
Silaging began in mid-June with a good spell of weather helping us snatch some hay early, as well as baled silage. All Thornley Hall sheep are now clipped with only the Glenwhelt hill ewes to gather a shear next month.
We have begun selling finished lambs from our mule flock, all being sold liveweight so far at weights between 40-45kg. I have maintained the Primera and Texel lambs have gone toe to toe throughout the year so far, however I have noticed that the Primera lambs seem to weigh heavier recently and so far have fetched a higher price than the Texels. I will continue to monitor this to see if this is the case throughout the season.