The Sanderson family
First generation farmers Malcolm and Judith Sanderson have improved the profitability of their beef and sheep enterprise, improving the amount of meat sold through fine-tuning their livestock and grassland management.
Malcolm and Judith took on their first farm, the tenanted Lower Highfield Farm, Halton, Lancster, 11 years ago, and they are helped in the running of the 250-acre all grassland beef and sheep business by daughter Laura and son James.
“We wanted to make the farm pay without relying on the Single Farm Payment, to maximise its potential and efficiency by reducing costs – and to secure succession for the family,” said Malcolm. “We have grown in confidence and gained the knowledge to look at what we could improve,”- Malcolm Sanderson
Final Open Day: June's summing-up event was well supported
Four years ago the farm had a herd of 70 Limousin cross British Blue suckler cows put to the Simmental bull, and 400 North of England Mule ewes crossed with the Texel and Suffolk. Now the ewes are split into Mules – bought in privately as either gimmer lambs or shearlings – and first cross Texel Mules bred on the farm.
Independent livestock specialist Lesley Stubbings has been working with the Sandersons from the outset and one of the objectives was to get the balance between the beef and sheep enterprises right as well as looking at the performance of each.
Sheep productivity – getting the right balance
Now ewe numbers have been increased to 600 to include an early lambing flock and home-bred Texel cross replacements. The beef herd has been reduced through selective culling to 30 cows which calve in a tight nine week period, improving overall management and workload.
“Productivity of the sheep flock at the beginning was good with a high lambing percentage, it was more a question of getting the balance between the cattle and sheep better, coupled with making them more efficient,” said Lesley Stubbings. “Improving the efficiency also focused on making better use of forage. Because of all these adjustments the farm is producing 10% more meat sold,” she added.
“The livestock units were very much biased towards the cattle so the decision was taken to increase sheep numbers and decrease the suckler herd size to improve that balance.
“Previously the flock’s lambing percentage was just under 200%, and to maintain that level of performance while increasing ewe numbers is quite an achievement, Often in the process of change the good elements of management are lost,” added Lesley.
Now the ewes are split into Mules – bought in privately as either gimmer lambs or shearlings – and first cross Texel Mules.
Earlier lambing group
An early lambing flock has been established over the last two seasons with 120 of the older Mule ewes giving them a chance to produce another lamb before culling and enabling expansion of the flock with home-bred females. has been established by sponging the ewes and crossing with the Suffolk.
Lambing starts in late January and the first lambs were sold in the second week of May this year, a fortnight later than 2012 because of the late spring, and they were sold weighing an average of 40kg through Lancaster mart. Lambs born from March 14 onwards start being sold at the end of June.
EID AND EBVs
To improve productivity, where possible most of the rams are now selected on their EBV. EID has been used to select the best home-bred Texel cross ewes to retain for the traits required.
Grassland at the root of all improvements
Core to increasing the business’s productivity and profitability has been improving the quality and quantity of grassland by re-seeding, over-seeding, aeration and liming.
While reducing costs was an initial objective of the Sandersons, improving the grassland has incurred extra costs but it has improved overall efficiency.
“The continual improvement to the grassland has resulted in greater qualtities of better quality forage being available to the stock,” said EBLEX’s Liz Genever who has also been advising the Sandersons.
The improvements have produced up to three tonnes more grass per acre, pushed up ewe numbers on the back of it and also saved on feed costs.
Suckler herd effivciency improved by 20%
Malcolm and Judith wanted to maintain the suckler herd – 600 ewes is the optimum for management and labour purposes – and as a result of the changes they have improved herd efficiency by 20% in terms of kg of calves sold per cow a year.
Previously, the cows calved in both the spring and the autumn and there was big slippage in calving patterns.
Now, with bull fertility testing, taking the bull out after nine weeks, hard culling of cows which have been sold for similar prices to heifer replacements, the herd now comprises young females which are producing a calf a year.
In 2012, 44 cows all produced a calf within a tight nine week period. Calves are sold at around a year old to the same buyer – who now has a batch of calves which are close in age.
For the future, the Sandersons plan to improve cattle handling facilities in a new building which is also increasing the amount of sheep housing to 520 ewes for lambing
As well as the initial farm audit to develop aims and objectives, soil testing was carried out. “Before we started with the monitor farm programme, we were very interested in getting lots of information, but we weren’t using it properly,” said Malcolm. “There was so much of it – and where do you start?”
Improvement work – “overseeding seen most success”
As well as using ryegrass in re-seeding programmes and overseeding with clover , sward lifting and aerating has been carried out in fields with high levels of compaction, depending on the depth of the problem.
“We have had great success with overseeding but we have been very thorough in harrowing and preparing the fields. As a result, I don’t think we will plough again but use re-seeding to rejuvenate grassland,” said Malcolm.
“We have tried alternative forage crops but we have found that the finishing lambs do just as well on the silage aftermaths on these improved pastures,” he added.
Monitor farm facilitator Myerscough’s Michelle Fare, said: “Having worked with the group at Lower Highfield for the last three years I have seen them develop in sharing their own ideas and experiences and all benefit directly as a result of this.
“The small changes made by Malcolm and Judith Sanderson have all added up to help improve the performance of the farm and this approach of making small tweaks has been replicated by many of the farmers in the group.
“The most popular meetings have focussed around improving the grassland and making more of the most valuable resource on a farm – the soil. Aeration to alleviate compaction, liming, reseeding and overseeding are all techniques demonstrated at Lower Highfield which have been shown to produce more good quality forage.”
Lower Highfield is in Higher Level Stewardship and among work carried out is half a mile of dry stone walling and two miles of hedging which is double fenced. Grant aided work has also been carried out under the FFIS and Catchment Sensitive Farming to renew concrete yarding and create a new silage clamp and cattle pens.
- Sandra Blades, of Hilltop, Carnforth, which carries 55 Limousin cross British Blue sucker cows and 200 predominalntly Mule ewes, has attended numerous meetings and carried out soil testing to improve grassland after listening to advice.
“Last year we carried out a trial with Calcilime and we found the stock did a lot better on the treated pasture,” said Sandra.
John Maxwell who finishes 200 to 300 store cattle a year at Whinney Garth, Lancaster, while also working full time, has also put soil testing into practice on 60 acres.
Improvements to his grassland he hopes will enable him to finish his cattle rather than selling them as strong stores at 20-24 months old.
“Attending these meetings has jogged my memory of some of what I learned at college and I am now putting them into practice. While I haven’t yet aerated any ground, I have done a lot of drainage work.
- Brian Longton, whose farm Stonethwaite, Troutbeck, Windermere, runs to 1,300ft, has moved away from tradtion running Texel cross ewes put back to the Texel.
After attending regular meetings at Lower Highfield, he has now begun bolusing his ewes to counter selenium, iodine and cobalt deficiencies on the farm to improve lambing percentages.
Key Performance Measure
2009 2010 2011 2012
No of ewes tupped 409 416 443 506
Total lambs sold / retained 696 701 770 863
Scanning % - 188% 203% 192%
Lambs sold per ewe % 170% 169% 178% 173%
Weaned lambs sold by end of August (as % of total lambs sold)
40% 57% 61% 53%
Ave weight lamb sold (kg) 1 41 40 41
Total kg lamb weaned / sold 28,536 28,741 30,800 35,383
2009 2010 2011 2012
No of cows put to bull 67 47 53 44
Calving % 78% 81% 92% 93%
Calving period (weeks) 29 32 24 9
Total kg calves weaned / sold 13,000 11,750 12,250 10,250
Total kg meat sold 41,536 40,491 43,050 45,633
lambs + calves)