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A Nottinghamshire sheep producer believes the future of his enterprise is about optimising output from an integrated mix of grassland and arable cover crops... Forage crops help optimise output

A Nottinghamshire sheep producer believes the future of his enterprise is about optimising output from an integrated mix of grassland and arable cover crops in a sustainable, regenerative system.

Fred Love, who farms at Retford, says meticulous forage management combined with Innovis genetics are enabling lambs from his 1300-ewe flock to take 170-200 days to finish with a target weight of 19-20kg and grade R3L or better.

The entire lamb crop is finished off forage within nine months and by the end of year – but the flock still manages to scan 170%, with a reared lambing percentage of 147% and output standing at 250kg/ha.

Maximum forage

“It’s all about maximising forage – both grazed grass and fodder crops, which are not only the cheapest form of feed, but also maintaining soil health and fertility,” says Mr Love, a first generation farmer.

“There’s a lot being talked about regenerative farming, however that’s what I’m already working on; I firmly believe that sheep and arable – two specialist complementary enterprises working together are for real for the future.”

At first, Mr Love stocked traditional Mule ewes at 10 ewes/ha, reaching a mature weight of almost 80kgs. But since swapping for lighter Innovis genetics – Aberfield crosses and Highlander maturing at 65-70kg, he has increased to 13.5 ewes/ha on heavy clay.

“Nowadays I’m able to lamb these hardy ewes outdoors,” says Mr Love. “I check two or three time a day, as few as 5% require any form of intervention and 90% lamb within the first three weeks.

Perfect fit

“I’m farming sheep that look after themselves. Up to 50% of lambs are finished off rotational grazing within five months, whilst the remainder are transferred to forage crops grown on neighbouring units.

Cover crops work out 30-40% cheaper in dry matter terms compared with silage, and ewes remain on these forage crops until March. The surrounding land is a mixture of arable and mid-tier Countryside Stewardship.

“The sheep fit perfectly,” says Mr Love.

“There’s also the bonus of being able to run one ram to 100 ewes, and I’m expecting my rams to last five working years. I think I’ve established a good template for continuing to grow the business and I’m currently targeting a minimum 2,000 ewes.

“I am no expert on regenerative farming systems but I’m learning quickly.”

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a system of principles and practices that seeks to restore and enhance the farm’s entire ecosystem – with a focus on soil health.

Advocates aim to improve the resources the use, rather than destroying or depleting them. Mixed farming is often seen as the way to achieve this – and introducing systems such as rotational grazing and cover crops improve soil structure and health.

In turn, these approaches result in higher quality yields and a richer, more natural environment without the need for purchased inputs such as concentrate feed and artificial fertilisers, together with reduced pesticides and herbicides.

Furthermore, sheep have a minimal carbon footprint, says Dewi Jones, chief executive of sheep breeding specialists Innovis. Carbon neutrality is as a real option for many producers who sequester woody vegetation to offset on-farm emissions, he adds.

This can be done sensibly while adding value to the farm infrastructure and its ecosystem, and producing high quality, nutrient-dense food. And while output is often reduced, there is frequently a healthier bottom line.

“There are many unanswered questions and a whole raft of research work needed before we fully understand the regenerative agriculture approaches we are being encouraged to use,” says Mr Jones.

“But I suggest we best start making progress since our antipodean counterparts are forging already ahead on this path. It’s about mall, measured steps.”