DYKEHEAD is a traditional hill farm in North Northumberland where the system is performance-driven.

The Corbett family has farmed the 425 acre Dykehead near Rochester, surrounded by the Otterburn military ranges and Kielder Forest, as owner-occupiers since 1954. Sheep and cattle have always been the backbone of the livestock enterprise.

In 2001, Malcolm Corbett, who farms with his wife Anne, took the opportunity to buy a further 75 acres of good land down the valley. Eldest son Ross runs a haulage and lime spreading business operating throughout Northumberland which Malcolm is a partner in.

“I describe the farm as a traditional hill farm and I’m told by people that 500 acres is big. But we are surrounded by hill farms running up to 3,000 acres. We don’t qualify for stewardship because that would restrict our operation. We try to be a production farm,” said Malcolm.

The farm carries 600 ewes, comprising 300 pure-bred Lleyns and 300 Lleyn-Texel crosses, as well as 50 pure-bred Limousin cows run on a commercial basis.

Malcolm moved away from the area’s traditional sheep 20 years ago. “The Lleyns came as a result of the price I was getting for Blackface lambs on the open market. Because they were horned they seemed to be devalued,” said Malcolm.

Malcolm has found time to be involved with many farming organisations where he has gained invaluable knowledge and experience.

With the NFU for ten years he was county chairman, North-East regional livestock board chairman, and served on national livestock board.

He was also NE Regional Chairman of NSA and NBA, served six years on the Eblex Board and spent six years at the Wool Board, four years as chairman.

Of the pure-bred Lleyns, 150 are put to the Lleyn, with most ewe lambs being retained as replacements for the Lleyn flock, and the remainder crossed with the Texel to provide replacements for the crossbred flock which is put back to the Texel.

The pure-bred Lleyns are all run at Dykehead on the harder ground which runs up to 1,200ft on the hill which includes peat bog - probably the highest-run Lleyn flock in the country - with the crossbreds grazing the better ground near Otterburn.

“We have been very happy with the Lleyns. It was good decision to go into the breed. We breed a small ewe (65kg) which suits our farm. These ewes work hard are excellent mothers, easily kept and produce a saleable product,” said Malcolm.

“We have been pushing these sheep and asking them to take another step and they have performed.”

The Lleyn ewes scan at mid 180 per cent, with the Texel crosses run at around ten per cent less, but the important figure is the 160 per cent they aim to rear and must try to improve on.

Ewes are scanned at the beginning of February and are fed according to how many lambs they are carrying. Lambing starts inside on April 1 and ewes and lambs are turned out after two days.

The pure-bred flock is Signet recorded. All the male pure-bred lambs are left entire to help with selection of potential stock rams at weaning in the first week in August.

The male lambs not kept for breeding are run for six weeks on grass and are then housed and fed ad-lib on a protein pellet with wheat straw. John Naylor and Alix Gray, of Northumbrian Quality Feeds, Belford, do silage analysis and advise on rations for both cattle and sheep.

Being tup lambs they finish very quickly on pellets and are sold on a flat rate to Randal Parker Foods in Wales through Stephen Kirkup Livestock as near 22kg carcase as possible.

First-cross and three-quarter Texels are sold on the grid at Dunbia, Preston and live at Hexham Marts Scots Gap Centre. Although lighter than the Lleyn tup lambs they are aimed at the export market and almost all attract a bonus price.

Lambs are sold from July onwards and are all away by early January. Referring to the net price (the money that goes in the bank) over the last few years the lambs have averaged over £80/head.

The Corbetts buy Lleyn stock tups from two breeders - Neil and Debbie McGowan, of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, and Duncan Nelles, of Thistleyhaugh, Northumberland, also using some home-bred tups.

“I firmly believe that a maternal tup must have a good mother and these breeders run grass-based systems, performance record their flocks and do not carry passengers. I am not interested in a tup that just looks good on the day,” said Malcolm.

“We benefit from a lot of hard work and detail these breeders put into their sheep.

“Home bred tups must have a least 30mm of eye muscle depth (measured as part of the recording process) and this criteria helps lambs to finish quickly at good weights,” he added.

A small flock of 20 pure-bred Texels is kept to breed tups for home use. New Texel bloodlines are high index tups sought from Hans Porksen at Cambo, who works in a similar way to the McGowans and Duncan Nelles.

“I don’t spend a lot of money on tups and I’m not interested in appearance or presentation. It’s their performance that matters,” said Malcolm.

“I have never dressed or coloured a sheep. I think the show ring does more harm than good to the sheep industry.

“I want a ewe that has cost less in terms of input and work, can rear two good lambs off her own back and she is very unlikely to be in a show ring,” he added.

Around15 Lleyn and Texel shearlings are sold each year straight off the farm – with no concentrates no dressing and no advertising. They have regular customers who know what the tups will do and they average about £500 a head.

With the phasing out of direct farm payments, the Corbetts are considering the future for their farming business and land management, particularly the hill ground.

Malcolm said: “John Naylor has been encouraging us to move to a TMR diet for the sheep enterprise to reduce costs and if we are to farm without support payments this is a step we have to make.

“We soil sample regularly and use fibrophos to keep the P & K correct. 100 units of N is applied to the silage ground (3 units at the end of March and 70 units one month later.) Fields are shut up the beginning of May and the grass is cut 50 days later. Making good silage is important in a forage based diet.

“Farmers in New Zealand are light years ahead of us in managing their grass-based systems - and that’s because they lost their farm support payments years ago,” he added.