Saturday, 7 June 2014

Planning Ahead

We have not had a world best lambing time. More barren ewes than I would like for one thing, but on the positive side we have had some cracking lambs. The time has come though to control more of the lambing cycle. For starters we need to buy our own tup.

Last time around we borrowed a rare Whiteface Woodland tup and he did a great job. He was not available this year, having been sold off to a farm in Cumbria. We did try for a similar lad, but unfortunately we could not arrange it. Plan B was to use a neighbours Texel ram. The ease of lambing was a very pleasant surprise. I only had to help on one occasion, and that was post birth, helping the lamb connect for a drink.

I think we have hit upon a system! 

Chatting with Ruth Dalton of the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST) she asked that I note the growth of the lambs. So, I weighed each lamb three days after birth, at the same time as clipping on their identity tags and docking their tails. I will weigh them another two times and note their weight gain. Ruth suggested the weighing project as a potential means to remove the Whitefaced Woodalnd from the RBST watchlist. If the ewes demonstrate their capability as milky mothers other farmers may include them in their flock. Let’s see how we go…

Clearly an essential element of this system is a Texel tup. That means looking out for the right animal at the sales prior to the lambing cycle beginning again later this year.

On a slightly different note, I will visit the Malton Food Festival over the bank holiday weekend. My main aim is to look at any concepts farmers are using to attempt to reach audiences with their products. That usually means burger vans or similar. But beyond that I want to look at packaging. I am unsure about our own stall at the present, the north just doesn’t have the markets to make the expense e.g. travelling etc worthwhile. But I do want to try a direct sale/mail order approach. At the same time there is bound to be a tasty sausage, or two, to be had.

I plan to kill three pigs for direct sale this month. They will be available on a first come first served basis so please do get in touch if you enjoy pork. I have already sold one quarter to a dairy farmer in Scotland. That should prove an excellent test, both in terms of feedback regarding our meat but also the wool packaging I intend to use. 

Originally written for and published in the Esk Valley News, June 2014 issue.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Live Stock, Dead Stock

It is one of the harsh realities of farming that, as an old saying goes, ‘when you have livestock, you will have dead stock’. Having said that I will never take it with a casual mind when an animal dies. Obviously we breed stock to kill, but until then they have a right to the best quality of life possible.

This month I lost a pedigree rare ewe. She was up and about at 8am, then down at 12 o’clock. I half suspected a nutritional deficiency, but her body condition was good. Becky from Gracelane Vets came for a look, suspecting Twin Lamb disease. The ewe was trying to eat which is always a good sign, but she was blind. This pointed toward poor nutrition conversion again.

It is always reassuring to watch a professional at work; Becky prepared the drugs she would administer, and then quickly shaved a small portion of fleece away from the neck. All three fluids where then injected into the vein of the sheep. It would be nice if the animal jumped up and was immediately cured, however she was moved by Landrover to an outbuilding to rest. I especially dislike that, when we keep our stock outside year round.

I was left with a special drench (oral medicine) that had to be administered daily. But administered how? ‘An old wine bottle is best because of the smooth lip’ Becky said. This could be tricky… The recycle collection had been that week. The only other bottle was in the fridge. Oh well, Nicola always says the health of the stock comes first.

The medicine bottle was promptly cleaned and the drugs heartily swallowed. Another good sign. Twin Lamb disease does as the name suggests apply to pregnant ewes, but they are not carrying twins as a rule. A big single lamb can have the same effect if the sheep isn’t eating well enough. In this case I was blindsided as the mild weather has helped the sheep, with the grass growing underneath them. The flock has access to minerals and hay but the vet confirmed her initial diagnosis. All the more galling really as they were a day away from starting on oats, part of their pre-lambing diet. After giving two drenches the ewe died a couple of days later. 

The big take away for me is to be better informed. So, more soil and grass tests to make sure the goodness that looks to be in the grass is there. Plus, I will conduct more regular condition scoring and weight checking too.

On a lighter note both of our pregnant sows farrowed. The picture shows a group of Saddleback’s from a litter of 11. 

Originally written for and published in the Esk Valley News, May 2014 issue.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Pink Lady

In March I had great fun helping the tourism team at the National Park with advanced promotion of their Lost Sheep in Pink Jerseys campaign. Asked if it was possible to create a live pink jersey sheep I quickly said yes. That said, I could not remember BATA stocking a pink spray!

The solution was a hairspray from Superdrug’s on-line shop. It took a few cans but we got enough spray on to one of our Whitefaced Woodland girls. The can states that it washes out in the shower… Well, the rain will need to do that job as I have no intention of shampooing a ewe!

Residents, businesses and organisations across the North York Moors can register now and display a sheep in a pink jersey between 20 June and 20 September.

Visitors will be asked to spot at least three lost sheep around the North York Moors and coastal area, enter the details online with a chance to win a large selection of prizes. They'll be able to enter as many times as they like, so there's an incentive to spot the sheep in different places.

All of the details can be found on the Park website: We certainly did something right, the pink sheep and I made the front page of the Yorkshire Post!

Last month I wrote about soil, grass and the part they play in the success of the farm. One key element of pasture health is drainage.

We have already spent a great deal of time and effort installing and repairing drains. I have always admired the effort that prior generations invested in their construction. To walk out of the house every day to dig, by hand, a metre under the surface, over 400 metres to move water away is an awe inspiring achievement. Even to mend a broken drain leaves me with a sense of a job well done, perhaps not immediately but over the following days and weeks as a field dries. Of course it is more than likely that a mini-digger is involved nowadays.

The picture shows a clay pot pipe drain that was found and exposed to clear a blockage. The water is now flowing and this summer the same dry grass area will contribute to a better hay crop.

Lambing Live is back on television. Lambs are due here in early May so, attending various veterinary workshops I have been refreshing my knowledge of the techniques/drugs that are available. The evenings are a good opportunity to talk through challenges; a key discussion point being whether to dip or spray iodine on the navel of the new born lambs. Which will be more effective at controlling infection..?

Originally written for and published in the Esk Valley News, April 2014 issue.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Is that Grass Growing Yet?

Despite the wind and rain it feels mild. I cannot help but think that the grass should be growing it looks so green in some fields, but a quick look at the gauge on our soil thermometer soon dampens my anticipation. Regrettably the warmth I feel while working outside has not transmitted down to the earth and I have not seen anything close to the six or seven degrees centigrade required for the grass to grow.

Thankfully that bit of snow we had came and went rapidly without causing any livestock or travel challenges. Sledging opportunities were likely to have been limited for the kids mind you…

Kirsty Brown from the National Park signed off the rebuilt 130 metres of dry stone wall, so the next project is… well, to build a dry stone wall. This is a shorter length, with a new drain underneath it. The drain is essential to prevent water running off the top of the pasture, eroding the soil as it goes.

It is funny how quickly I have come to realise how essential the soil is to any form of farming. I long since stopped thinking that I produce lamb. Now I know that I have to maintain the best soil health possible so I can in turn produce nutritious grass. I am a grass farmer, simple. After that, it is down to the choice of animal/breed that can survive the conditions.

Which leads me nicely into moles… They have been busy wrecking pasture more so than I have seen before. So I have begun the annual game of controlling the monsters before they multiply. I avoid placing the traps in fields where the sheep are grazing. When the traps stop catching typical farmer cynicism tells me the moles are hiding under the ewes feet!

Our farm system (for the sheep at least) is grass based. So the plan is for the ewes to stay out all year, rotating through fields with a good cover of grass and low parasite burden. Clearly in winter that becomes a challenge. The solution is All Grass Wintering, a recognised technique using electric fences to keep stock from roaming at will (and eating
the best bits just like people would), controlling the rate the crop is eaten. We mix the grass with stored forage (hay) provided in metal racks and hope to successfully manage each animals’ body condition through to lambing in May. Clearly, when the girls are eating for two (or three) they need a balanced diet that meets their energy needs. How effective our system is here on the Moors comes right back around to choice of breed. Our native Whitefaced Woodland’s have a reputation for thriving on poor ground. That said, I will be happy when the grass starts to grow again.

Originally written for and published in the Esk Valley News, March 2014 issue.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

No Snow is Good Snow

Snow is certainly at the forefront of many minds. ‘No snow up there yet’, they say, even the neighbours are at, ‘when will it snow’ they ask. Right now I’m happy without it and hopefully by the time you read this we will still be looking at green fields. ‘It could still snow in April you know’, arggh, no, maybe this year we will have a snow free year?

Without the white stuff I have been able to get on and renovate a 130 metre stretch of dry stone wall. The first task involved finding a lot of the top stones in the verge. That meant cutting back the dense thicket of bramble and nettle that has secured a foothold over the years. In my mind that is a job worth doing as weeds in the verge easily become seeds in the fields, which in turn require removal the next summer and beyond. Have you read the saying ‘one years seeding, seven years weeding’? It applies to nettles so it is well worth removing them.

A few years back I found an old National Park paper that listed the roadside verge in our part of Farndale as being of interest due to the abundance of wild flowers. Sadly there is not much to see, but we have seen on some stretches that keeping the dominant weeds species cut back does allow more delicate plants a chance to grow. To my mind it is a good think having a verge swap wild flower seeds with the field, rather than the nettles and thistles that the stock won’t eat and require labourious methods of control. One theory I have read relating to the strong growth of nettles etc in the verges suggests they enjoy the road salt we put down to melt the ice and… and we are back there again!

In a different part of the farm, but still on the topic of invasive plants, our pigs have done a wonderful job of clearing away a stretch of bracken. It is great to see them getting down into the root system. It is surprising to see the volume and strength of the roots as they lie exposed, but the girls make short work of it. They are often to be seen crunching chunks of it, with the ends poking out of the sides of their mouths.

British Saddleback pigs are renowned for being hardy. It is one of the reasons we chose the breed to help us tidy the farm up. It is still a surprise to see them ignore their ark in favour for a nest. On the other hand it is wonderful to see them exhibit their natural behaviour, sleeping out together in a carefully built rush bed. I wonder if they will carry on doing that when the you know what comes…

Originally written for and published in the Esk Valley News, February 2014 issue.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Our Meat, Our Customers

It has been thoroughly enjoyable delivering our pork to our customers this past week. It is such a pleasure to be able to see the regard they have for local produce, it makes the effort worthwhile. I certainly would not have received the type of feedback I was offered had I simply sold the pigs in a market.

Even better, it is wonderful when you hear people talk of their experience eating our pork. This is the type of dialogue I hope I can develop while improving my stock rearing and meat marketing skills. In addition I am keen to understand the best form of packaging and presentation should we decide to send the pork further afield. One especially attractive solution utilises British wool, wrapped in plastic, together with ice to keep the meat cool.

I spent my first visit to the Fox and Hounds in Ainthorpe listening to Ian Cairns of SAC Consulting discuss rush management. Rushes thrive on poor, wet soils therefore they are well suited to the Moors!

That suitability means they can quickly overtake the more valuable pasture grasses and once established they are difficult to remove. Cattle and sheep can’t help, rushes are bitter and are left behind unless stock are left with nothing else to eat. I was told what I thought was an old wives tale, that cutting the rushes seven times a year would hamper their growth. As it turns out the consultants believe that six times is enough!

We have drained some of our soils, but that action alone has not reduced rush growth. It will however, especially as the weather has been so dry, allow some cutting before the end of the year.

The sheep breeding cycle began again this week when the tup was introduced to the flock. I plan to lamb outside so hopefully the weather will be kind when our new borns are due in May next year.

On a sad note it was Steve Wilson of Cote Hill’s funeral back on the 11th December. I had seen Steve to wave to many times. On the one occasion we did spend longer talking I caused trouble for his dad! I was supposed to be helping two of our older neighbours and Dennis, Steve’s dad, load the Farndale Show tent into a trailer. Instead Dennis pointed me toward the milking parlour and I was off like a shot! It was great to see Steve working with the cows, it is a wonder to watch them hop up and wait for the clusters to be attached. Outside there was a good deal of mumbling aimed toward Dennis as the senior squad performed the heavy lifting. RIP Steve.

Originally written and published in the Esk Valley News, January 2014 issue.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Why'd That Sheep Die?

'Do you want to come to a sheep autopsy'?

It's not a question I get asked everyday. But sheep do have a reputation for dying for no reason whatsoever. That's not a view I subscribe to, there's obviously a reason behind every loss, so learning more is important for the health of our flock.

Post Mortem Evidence Collection as an Aid to Veterinary Diagnosis of Sheep Diseases. That was the snappy title given to the six hour course run by a veterinary surgeon. We began with a powerpoint presentation that set out the basics of sheep anatomy and why an autopsy performed on farm is worthwhile.

Farmers look at their stock everyday, and you can notice characteristics and behaviours that point toward ill health. We were advised to consider the following list:

1. Weight loss
2. Respiratory signs
3. Scour (farm/vet language for diarrhoea)
4. Abortion
5. Neurological
6. Skin / Wool
7. Lameness
8. Sudden death!

Clearly the latter sign would tell you something is definitely wrong! But what..? In the lead up to death had the animal displayed any of the other signs? Observation at every stage is important, but eventually the only way to really tell what happened is to look inside. In all cases the autopsy had to be conducted within 24 hours of death.

Allowing farmers to conduct their own investigations isn't as precise as the service offered by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (the VLA - our nearest is in Thirsk), but it does offer an instant answer for diseases with specific pathology e.g. fluke (see: That rapid determination then allows for wider flock treatment decisions.

As well as speed another consideration is cost, a VLA examination is £160 including carcass disposal. Clearly a matter requiring some thought balanced against the risk of potentially not discovering the cause of death. In my case I could see myself examining one or two sheep to find the cause of death but if I failed I would be looking toward our vet and the VLA for professional help, especially if losses were mounting.

We were given a full round up of the kit required, including the sense behind vets wearing a pair of long gloves and another short pair over the top for better feel. The last item on the list was a digital camera.

These pictures are not taken to shock, but rather as an important personal aide memoire. In addition as clearly as I could describe the colour of specific internal organs that information can provide clues to aid diagnosis.

First things first, a quick check of the teeth. This ewe was six years old, so it would be normal for her to be missing teeth. The teeth you can't easily see (the mouth can't be opened wide enough) are the molars. In bad condition the sheep would not be able to cud. In this case she appeared to be ok for her age.

The next task was to cut the skin and fleece away with a sharp knife. In doing so we were reminded to only use sharp tools and not to get carried away, our instructor could relate stories involving friends that had suffered injury as a result of being over eager with a blade.

This picture shows the wind pipe. As well as not cutting ourselves we were also told to be careful to avoid damage to the organs and the potential for contamination of any samples.

Here the animal has been opened up to expose the gut. This was removed and laid out for examination. At this point it was emphasised that touch is crucial. Are the organs hard/soft? For anyone reading that has gutted a rabbit before, the principal of the sheep's gut is the same, albeit on a larger scale. 

One of two healthy looking kidneys, see below.

On closer examination one of the kidneys was marked (above the thumb on the lower hand), but not in such a way as to indicate that this was the cause of death.

The liver; this was a major concern prior to the procedure. It actually turned out to be healthy. The fluke worms that can be a risk in wet periods can severely damage the liver, adults worms leaving biro diameter tunnels through the structure.

It is amazing to note however that the sheep can survive with up to 70% liver damage and recover after treatment.

A section through the liver demonstrating its condition. 

Where the problem lay. The sheep had been suffering from breathing difficulties and in its last days had been struggling to keep up with the flock. Here the diaphragm has been removed and the lungs revealed.

In a healthy animal the lungs would be a fluffy pink colour. Here they are clearly not and are burdened with white'ish tumors. Clearly we had identified the problem; the vet diagnosed Maedi Visna (MV).

Sheep farmers will be familiar with the disease. If you are a regular visitor to agricultural shows over the summer months you may have noticed that sheep are often split into groups, one MV accredited and the other not. MV travels through the air and the sheep are separated to avoid the risk of the disease being transmitted.

A number of this flock are now having their blood tested to check for MV. It may be that this sheep was the only victim. Certainly without the autopsy the illness would not have been identified and the rest of the flock left at risk.