NEW APPROACH: Farmer David Monkhouse, of Low Houselop Farm
NEW APPROACH: Farmer David Monkhouse, of Low Houselop Farm

One of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s current beef and lamb “strategic” farms is situated in County Durham, with host farmer David Monkhouse having identified several target areas for review, including the management of the grassland. Wendy Short went along to one of the project’s recent meetings to find out more.

LOW Houselop is a 110ha beef and sheep unit where the land runs from 800-1,000 feet above sea-level. David Monkhouse and his wife, Joyce, run 550 ewes, as well as 80 suckler cows and a small herd of red deer from the farm, near Tow Law.

Having pinpointed grassland management as one aspect where a change of approach might increase farm profitability, Mr Monkhouse implemented a plan for this season which included a switch to rotational grazing and a re-seeding programme.

However, his strategy had been thwarted by the weather, following the harsh winter and the prolonged summer drought, he explained.

“One of the main fields selected for the rotational grazing plan was fed by a stream, which dried up for a long period,” said Mr Monkhouse.

“The area was intended to contain 150 ewes and lambs, but it was not practical to transport water to the site for such a high number of sheep, so the idea will be deferred until next year. It was unfortunate, because the early results looked promising and we were hoping that it would be a success.”

Another measure towards the aim of enhancing productivity was to adopt a re-seeding programme, which included the sowing of a mixture containing grass, clover, plantain and chicory.

“The plantain and chicory had longer roots, compared to the grass and clover, and the two plants fared better in the drought, so that very little of the grass and clover remained,” said Mr Monkhouse.

“The herbs became quite woody and they had to be grazed hard, in order to get them back under control. A second re-seed contained just grass and clover and that has performed very well. The potential for these two options remains to be seen, but the on-farm trial will be repeated for the 2019 season.”

Historically, few re-seeds have been undertaken and these were always established using the plough.

More recently, they have been created using direct-drilling in the spring and this has brought savings, in terms of both time and money, commented Mr Monkhouse. It has proved to be an effective method of lifting grass quality and quantity, although it tended to trigger a flush of weeds in the appointed fields, in the year after sowing. The grass and clover re-seeds are expected to last for eight to ten years, he added.

Sheep Flock

THE farm system is fully stratified, comprising 250 Scottish Blackface ewes and 50 Cheviot crosses, which go to a Border Leicester cross Texel ram for the breeding of replacements.

Their female progeny is put to either a Primera or a Charollais tup, for the production of finished lambs. There is also a flock of lowland ewes, which go to the purebred Charollais.

The Cheviot is gradually replacing the Scottish Blackface as the unit’s hill breed, as it is believed that the Cheviot has a lower feed requirement, when it comes to feeding individuals with multiple lambs.

The Border Leicester cross Texel tups are highly prized on the farm for their positive qualities as terminal sires, although they can be difficult to source, according to Mr Monkhouse.

Suckler Herd

THE spring-calving suckler herd has traditionally been pure Limousin, but concerns over lack of milkiness have led to the introduction of the Shorthorn and the intention is for replacements to be three-quarter Limousin and one-quarter Shorthorn. Their progeny is sold as stores.

Future Plans

FUTURE objectives for the farm include more detailed recording of the sheep flock, along with the routine weighing of cows and calves at weaning.

The Monkhouses will also continue to work towards the improvement of forage quality and quantity, and more closely monitor the performance of their lambs.

Veterinary Perspective

THE farm’s consultant appointed for the strategic project at Low Houselop is Debby Brown, a veterinarian with Dugdale Nutrition.

One of the main results the farm is hoping to achieve is to finish all of the lambs off grass and forage, she told delegates.

Soil samples had been taken, and had identified that phosphate and potash were above the minimum required levels.

“The Monkhouses apply liberal quantities of farmyard manure to their fields and testing found that phosphate and potash was in over-supply,” said Mrs Brown.

“To provide information for the calculation, they weighed a load of farmyard manure and calculated the amount of material that was being used to treat fields on an individual basis, by counting each load. The manure was then analysed, to arrive at a figure to show how much of each of the major nutrients was being applied on a per acre basis.

“A combination fertiliser has been applied in the past, but there are potential savings to be made following the analysis, and some of the fields may only require straight nitrogen. The pH of the soils that were tested was found to have reached the target figure. ”

Red Deer

THE deer herd is a relatively new venture for Low Houselop and is an important element of the farm’s “Brexit-proofing” strategy, said Mr Monkhouse.

There are eight hinds at present and a stag will be borrowed on an arrangement which will see its owner buy back the resulting male progeny.

“I have heard that if the country does not secure a trade deal post-Brexit, then the sheep industry could face serious problems,” he said.

“Deer require handling only two or three times a year, offering a low-maintenance option, compared with sheep. Venison meat is in high demand and we may increase the size of the herd, in the years to come.”