LAST month saw the launch of the new AHDB Beef and Lamb strategic farm in Cumbria, and at the first meeting at Rawfoot Farm near Shap Richard Carruthers outlined his current farming policy and goals for the future.

Rawfoot Farm is an upland holding which covers almost 400 acres, plus a small acreage of common grazing on the fell, explained Mr Carruthers, who farms with his wife, Laila. The livestock comprises 850 ewes, as well as 65 Sim-Luing (Simmental cross Luing) cows and the tenanted holding is managed with no paid labour. The goals that have been set by the family include a drive to further improve grassland productivity and there are also plans to increase the forage crop acreage.

Mr Carruthers described a meeting five years ago with a New Zealand adviser as a “moment of epiphany.

“The livestock had been on a set stocking system for many years and in the beginning I was reluctant to adopt a rotational programme following New Zealand principles,” he said. “However, it works extremely well, with an increase in forage production and savings on bought-in concentrate feeds and fertiliser.

“At present, the rotational grazing is limited to the sheep, as the cattle are kept on a large allotment block and there would be problems with water access. The sheep are contained in two to three-acre paddocks and moved every three to four days; I tend to divide the flock into three batches. An additional 30 to 40 acres is brought into the rotational system annually, using a mixture of temporary and permanent electric fencing and traditional fencing materials.

A British Charolais bull is used across the herd, with store cattle sold at eight to ten months old, either privately, or through local auction marts. Cow numbers have been almost halved compared with a decade ago and numbers will come under further scrutiny during the strategic farm membership.

The Carruthers originally had a hefted flock of hill sheep, but these are being replaced by composite breeds.

“I was very reluctant to give up the horned flock, but they were not paying their way,” he told delegates. “They are being bred out through the use of a Highlander composite tup on the hill ewes and an Aberfield sire for the flock on the in-bye land.

The composite breeds have required a change in approach, he said.

“I had been used to buying rams mainly on their visual appeal. But my most recent purchase was made over the internet, basing my choice on production figures. Having access to a wide range of data is useful and it allows me to select rams that will enhance traits that fall short within my own flock.

“My Highlander rams will serve up to 150 ewes for five or six years and they will have a relatively high value when they are sold on. One important trait is wool on the head, as I believe that this feature improves lamb survival on the hill.”

High concentrate feed prices prompted the sowing of a mixture of kale, oilseed rape and Italian ryegrass this year and the policy will be repeated for 2020. Mr Carruthers has also taken on the New Zealand policy of delaying lambing until grass growth is well under way and has put the date back to mid to late April for 2020. Ewe lambs must weigh 40kgs-plus to go to the tup and 150 were mated for the 2019 season.

He spoke of his hopes that his two-year participation in the strategic farm project would provide him with a clear direction for the future. Any changes would need to take into account the farm’s high annual rainfall and its long winters, he stressed.

“We must improve profitability, so that we can farm independently of support payments. We need to have a greater understanding of our costs of production and start thinking in terms of output per hectare. One of the most significant issues is that we are not producing enough lambs to allow us to spread our fixed costs effectively.

“Like other farmers, I am concerned about the effects of Brexit, but there are some factors that I can influence. Input from the consultants linked to the strategic farms programme and ideas that are suggested by other farmers at the meetings should help me to find the right direction for the business. One thing is clear; we must make changes so that we are in a better position to respond to market pressures,” he said.

Mrs Carruthers also operates the highly successful ‘Rawfoot Farm Ride’, offering horses and riders access to a six-mile route across the land, with optional cross country jumps. Another new enterprise is the sale of home-produced beef, and next year will see the introduction of Wagyu beef to the list of products.