WE HAD QUITE A LONG PERIOD OF “SELF HELP” BEFORE GETTING A SHEPHERD

The Mackays are tenant farmers whose home is Symonds Hyde Farm a 160ha arable farm located in Hertfordshire, England. The Mackay’s also contract farm Hill End Farm which extends to about 540 ha for the Gascoigne Cecil Estates. In the last 10 years, the Mackay’s began to notice that the herbicides and pesticides were becoming less effective. Nature was finding a way to reclaim her position. And so, the conventional approach of arable farming was in need of a more holistic change. In 2016 the area of grass was increased at Hill End Farm to provide parking for events. This provided a catalyst for change. With the support of Gascoigne Cecil Estates , Angus and his father Daniel they decided to turn the farm into a mixed arable and sheep farm to make better use of this grass. Mixed farming has many advantages to improving soil health as well as being advantageous to the arable farming calendar. The main benefit to Symonds Hyde Farm was that the introduction of livestock allowed them to naturally combat certain weeds, particularly black grass.

The Mackay’s realised that by planting spring crops they were able to control black grass, which then allowed them to plant stubble turnips in the autumn that could be used as feed for sheep over the winter.

They considered several different breeds of sheep, originally being quite keen on the “easy care” breed. As arable farmers, the name was quite attractive. In the end, they chose Romney sheep for their hardiness and higher quality wool which allows them to live outside all year round.

They bought their first 300 sheep in 2016. This has grown to 1000. Sheep farming is new for the Mackay’s. They are learning on the job but understand that transformation can happen, but at a pace which nature intended. This model of working is very different to the fast paced, high yield, high cost (economic and environmental) ways of arable farming. In terms of our attitude to lamb and wool production I think you could say we have a “modern approach to traditional tasks”.

The land varies from gravel to clay but with a lower than average rainfall it is quite drought prone. This makes growing arable crops such as wheat and Oilseed Rape a bit of a gamble some years, so a way to spread our risk by producing sheep as well was advantageous. We have had help from several sources over the last few years. In particular the AHDB better returns project has been a constant reference point for how to improve and run our flock.

  • Years shepherding: 4
  • Location: Hatfield
  • Flock size: 1000

 

The land varies from gravel to clay but with a lower than average rainfall it is quite drought prone. This makes growing arable crops such as wheat and Oilseed Rape a bit of a gamble some years, so a way to spread our risk by producing sheep as well was advantageous. We have had help from several sources over the last few years. In particular the AHDB better returns project has been a constant reference point for how to improve and run our flock.

Gascoigne Cecil Estates have always been keen to promote conservation on their land and Hill End Farm is in a midtier environmental scheme, funded by Natural England. Under the scheme they have put 7% of the farm into various wild bird food and pollen mixtures. The benefit of investing into biodiversity schemes are that they boost ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play. For example, a larger number of plant species means a greater number of natural predators such as ladybirds which naturally reduces the pressure from aphid attack in cereal crops such as wheat

5227
Kg

Wool produced
this season

We work with Red Tractor Food Assurance. I believe every industry needs an external auditor to give the public confidence in the end product. They have fair policies and a good auditing process. It’s a realistic way to assess a farm.

Our current organic matter levels are described as normal at between 5 and 6% but we hope to build these further over the next decade. It will be a slow process, but worthwhile. We decided to invest in Romneys because of their ability to lamb easily outdoors, essential in our low input natural system. Over winter we keep all the sheep outdoors as nature intended. There is insufficient grass available through the winter however so we graze them on stubble turnips. This is low cost and gives the sheep exactly the nutrition they need to maintain a successful pregnancy.

With P,K, Mg and pH we have target levels to achieve. We can either do this by adding the individual minerals as artificial fertiliser from a bag or by adding organic manure such as compost, sewage cake etc… The artificial fertiliser is basically just crushed up rocks so its actually a fairly “natural” product. We use organic manures such as compost that is produced from green waste collections by the council from peoples houses because it is a cheaper source of these minerals. It also helps to build our organic matter levels which helps in other areas such as drainage, workability (ease of cultivating and working the soil). We maintain the P, K, Mg, pH levels in line with RB20

Stepping into the Mackay family home you see how much they love to read; land, philosophy, science, sailing. Walls and walls of books from floor to ceiling.

Each family member has a role in the day to day running of the home and farm. Angus and Daniel manage the business and operations. Angus heads up the sheep side while Daniel manages the arable side. Angus graduated top of his year from Newcastle with a Bsc in Agriculture in 2015 and has a passion for improving the farming system to make it more sustainable to cope with what could be a turbulent few years. Daniel is well versed on the challenges of modern day farming through his involvement in a NIAB TAG discussion panel which focuses on science based research about herbicides and pesticides. When he is not in the tractor he is sailing… or reading… or both. Lorna takes charge of the daily organisation for tupping, lambing, shearing and animal movement reporting.

Her speciality is looking at poo to assess the number of worm eggs to predict worm numbers indicators of a worm challenge before it becomes visible. Lorna is the host and takes care of anyone who comes to visit. Alice is the younger daughter. She finished her A levels in July 2018 and is now on a gap year working on a dairy farm in New Zealand. She helps out on the farm during the holidays and is particularly good at fixing machinery.

 

Symonds Hyde Farm choose to work with those shepherds who show an interest in trying new things. This compliments the family’s unique and inquisitive approach about how they can improve the land they work on. The arable farmer lifestyle typically works between the calendar months of June through to October. Now we have sheep, we work every day and night. We run a large number of stock with a very low labour input by investing heavily in machinery that minimises the labour requirement and therefore cost.

We have a close eye on costs and are constantly trying to improve efficiency within the business to improve profitability. Part of this is a keen interest in welfare because there is a close link between high welfare and high performance – a sick, poorly fed animal with no water will not perform as well as a well fed healthy one.

We bought our first 300 sheep in 2016. This grew in 2017 and 2018 to 1400 but we have now dropped back to 1000 focussing on good breeding. Their first lambs of the 2016 flock were born in spring 2018, two weeks earlier than expected because Angus worked out the lambing dates wrong! The shearers come to join us in July, They eat vast amounts of food because it’s a very physical job and they often shear 14 hours+/day. They listen to dance and DnB music very loudly from a massive speaker system, it’s like being in a wool powered rave. It’s really good that  some companies can see the benefits of traceability and “fair” pricing. It’s something that the public is becoming much more engaged with. Wool is a traditional fibre – chosen by our forebears for its strength and insulation. It is exceptionally warm. Our shearers will shear about 200Hd each in a 12 hour day. There is 4 of them so they shear 800 in a day. All 1000 ewes take about a day and a half, proportionally longer if doing the lambs as well in the autumn.

Close the loop and find out what we made?

The Woolkeepers® initiative has captured both transparency and traceability in a unique wool assurance scheme which traces wool from farm gate to shop front. Our visibility within the supply chain ensures compliance with safety, sustainability and welfare requirements. Each time we process wool, we create a unique identifier which traces the batch back to farm, as well as forward to our customer.

This batch of wool went to Hypnos Wool Origins Range

Hypnos are a long-established family business with an illustrious Royal history to be proud of. And they pour it all back into our design and craft to hand build the most comfortable beds in the world. Hypnos has taken the next step in its commitment to sustainability by partnering with Red Tractor Food and Farming standards in an industry first that has seen the brand create the pioneering Origins Collection. This range of mattresses uses the most responsibly sourced materials possible, including 100% British wool that’s traceable right back to Red Tractor assured farms.

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