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Performance soars for first generation farmers

Sector News Sector News4-12-2019
Alan and Richard Fairbairn

Feeding ewes a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) is central to the success of Richard and Alan Fairbairn’s sheep enterprise at Hill Farm in Worcestershire.

Their policy has cut the use of labour, reduced costs of production and created a healthier, more contented flock. As a result, the brothers have applied the same thinking to their beef enterprise and seen its performance soar.

As first-generation farmers, who are having to purchase every acre of owned land on which they operate their sheep and beef enterprises, they have no choice but to be efficient producers.

Starting out in the 1980s as enthusiastic schoolboys helping on neighbours’ farms, they then became self-employed farm contractors, moved on to rent small parcels of land and a cattle yard, and eventually became fully fledged sheep and beef producers. Taking the opportunity in 2006 to buy the farm they rented, they are now working together exclusively for their own farming business. 

Today they farm 162 hectares (400 acres), of which 49ha (120 acres) is owned. They keep a suckler herd of 85 mostly Simmental cross cows and have 600 breeding ewes, of which 200 are Suffolk cross, 250 are Texel cross and 150 are North Country Mules.

The farm is designed to maximise health and performance of stock, minimise labour input and maintain a continuous cashflow for the two families throughout the year. As a result, lambing begins with Suffolks at the end of January, continues with Texels in early February and resumes with Mules in early April. Lambs are finished at 40-42kg by about three months of age, with a few going live to Worcester Market, but the vast majority sell direct to an abattoir.


Similarly, cattle are split block-calved in spring and autumn, increasing the carrying capacity of the farm compared with the previous single block-calving only in spring, with progeny ready for sale throughout most of the year.

Heifers tend to go through Ludlow or Worcester markets as strong stores and males are kept entire, also to sell as stores, although the finishing route is now being considered. Alan said: “Males have been  sold as stores, but we are more likely to go down the finishing route in future to get the highest value from them we can. We can get them to grow so fast since we introduced their current diet, so it makes more financial sense to finish them ourselves.”

Ingredients of the current ration are key to the cattle’s performance, but its formulation was only devised after first seeing the success of the TMR for ewes. Alan said: “We bought the mixer wagon in 2012 when it was very wet and ended up with a lot of average silage. We had been trough feeding sheep, but as numbers increased it became too labour intensive and ewes also got knocked around in their rush for the trough.”

The TMR was devised in consultation with Peter Evans from ForFarmers, who formulated a ration comprising baled grass silage, maize silage, ForFarmers Soyaplus (a rumen- protected soya), cereals and Micro-balance Prime, the latter containing the live yeast, Levucell SC.

Peter said: “We wanted the mix to have a good dry matter and be palatable and presentable with as little dust as possible, and would also include molasses if needed. The inclusion of Levucell SC was to control any acidosis, helping maximise feed intakes and fibre digestion, and helping with milk fat production in the lactating ewe. Levucell SC works through numerous mechanisms, including scavenging oxygen, which helps maintain the anaerobic conditions required for  the fibre-digesting bacteria to do their work in the rumen. The net result is it helps maintain a constant rumen pH and reduces acid loading. In other words, it reduces the risk of acidosis.”

Ewes now generally come in from strip-grazing forage crops over winter, a month before lambing if they are carrying twins or triplets and a little later if carrying singles. Richard said: “We feed them the TMR at up to 6kg/head when they come in and make sure they always have feed in front of them.“We feed them every morning and they have just cleared it up and are ready for more by the following morning.


Ewe replacements at Hill Farm

“We have noticed since they started  on the Levucell SC, they have been so content you could hear a pin drop in the shed. Prolapses have declined to almost nothing and you can hear the first call of each lamb as it is born. There was far more noise in our previous system. Twin lamb disease has also been completely eliminated on the new TMR, but to achieve this it has been important to feed the ration for ewes with twins or triplets for a full month before lambing.”

Because of the success of feeding Levucell SC to sheep, the Fairbairns started to use it for growing cattle and it now forms part of the high-starch finishing ration. This comprises rolled barley, maize silage, baled grass silage, ForFarmers Soyaplus and Microbalance Prime.

Alan said: “We have tried it without Levucell SC, but noticed a big difference. It is a starchy diet and the Levucell SC definitely stops acidosis and helps maintain a stable rumen, which is obvious from the improved manure consistency and the higher intakes achieved when the yeast is included.”

Describing their growth as ‘beyond expectations’, Alan said: “We had predicted a daily liveweight gain of 1.3kg, but they have been doing far more. “For example, bulls born in September 2018 were weighted on March 27 and had averaged 1.76kg/day liveweight gain from weaning to sale as stores. We have been overwhelmed with their performance,” he said and also praised the Simmental bulls which sired the batch. 

Dry summer

Suckler herd of 85 Simmental cross cows

Alan said: “A year ago after the dry summer when we had to buy in extra feed, we felt we should cut the cost of the ration. We took out the Levucell SC and regretted it straight away. We can see both cattle and sheep doing so much better when it is part of their ration and we will definitely keep half a pallet in stock. We will not let it run out again.”

Commenting on the success of the system, the Fairbairns say they plan to stick with it for the foreseeable future.