Lowther Estate: Mules add up for Lowther

Having been at Lowther Estate for nine years, estate manager Richard Price has a firm grip on the both the physical and financial peformance of the in-hand farming operation which includes 5000 North of England Mule ewes.

Richard felt it was important to point out from the offset that Lowther Park Farms Ltd is a self financing and rent paying business. “We have the same feed prices – everything is accountable down to the last rubber ring.”

“Some may believe that estate farming is not ‘real farming money’, that simply isn’t true here.” Alongside the in-hand farming there is also a significant let estate, with more than 60 tenants on farms ranging from 160 acres to 1500 acres.

“This broad spectrum sees most tenants on successional tenancy, most being Agricultural Holdings Act tenancies. “Many people ask if it is Lowther’s policy to take back the farms in hand? This is not always the case. We want to see our land farmed well and for the long term, we want the farm to be lived in. We find it has got to be a minimum of 15 years for the farm to go forward and for that strong element of goodwill and security to act between the landlord and tenant.

Richard originated from Shropshire and has lived and worked in Warwickshire, but growing up he often made the annual pilgrimage up to the Mule ewe lamb sales. The draw of the North of England never left him and came to fruition when he became farm manager at Lowther Estate.  He recalled that Jim Lowther was fast to point out his expectations of the farming enterprise namely: Smart; Ethical; and Profitable. And in response to this clear strap line among other things Richard converted the flock to North of England Mule ewes.

“From all aspects Mules work for us. It’s about depreciation, longevity and mothering ability. The ewe has to look after you, you don’t look after the ewe. The North of England Mule saves money on costs, yes she can eat more, yes she will have more lambs, but we tend to find we can run more Mules per shepherd than any other breed. At the moment we have three full time shepherds on 5000 mule ewes and previously we had five full time shepherds on 3000.

On leaving school at 16 Richard did a two year apprenticeship in farming and then followed on with a sandwich course.

In 2001 Richard went to Warwickshire College as farm manager and reverted the Lleyn cross sheep to Mules to which end North of England Mules still play an integral part in the Warwickshire College’s flock alongside Texel cross ewes.

With suhc a large flock, lambing is planned meticulously. The 2016 lambing time saw 700 sheep lamb in 48 hours around the 12th April and with all lambing taking place indoors the logistics become mind boggling. John Harrison, head shepherd, is in charge of the inside lambing and the 500 individual self-watering pens along with the temporary staff who do the never ending task of wet mothering on. “Lambs are tailed, scratched and numbered on the way out of the building. The other two full time shepherds take care of the sheep outside. It is at this juncture that the Mule comes into her own. With time in an individual pen been limited to about five hours it means the Mule ewe has to be able to take care of her family unit.”

Lowther has established that the optimum date for lambing the Mule is between the 16th – 20th March but Richard points out that an April lambing seems to work as the generally the grass starts to come. They are able to fall back on grain sheds and other buildings when the weather becomes extreme.

Lowther scan their ewes at the beginning of February and then most lambs are sold before October. The national average for losses from scanning to sale is 7-8%. Lowther boasts losses of 3.5-4%.

As general farm policy Lowther does a series of soil tests which among other things has highlighted a deficiency in selenium. This is counteracted by Eden Farm supplies being commissioned to develop a vitamin drench which they feel now is crucial and with a price tag of 13-14p per dose this had proved an effective supplement.

“We think the Mule is undoubtedly the best sheep for this kind of system. Because of all her mothering traits, her ability to produce a long stretchy good confirmation lamb fit for the market .

“There is no such thing as an easy care sheep, all livestock needs managing. The North of England Mule ewe is about as easy care as you can get with the key to management being preventative rather than constantly reacting to the problem.”

Key to profitability at Lowther is good management of the bottom third of the flock, says Richard. “To try to keep depreciation to a minimum we go to 4.5 crops. When buying we go off previous history and buy from proven breeders.”

Unlike the traditional family farm every hour that is worked is accounted for – so looking at the farming business as a whole it was revealed that there were drastic inefficiencies in both the beef and the sheep enterprises.

“We felt we had to be in charge of our own destiny, so after getting rid of the beef breeding cattle it became more important from the sheep side of things to know what you are selling and who you are selling to – hitting those right weight and classifications has become a critical part of the business.

“This tracks back through to our buying policy too and in recent years we’ve only bought shearlings. There is a quicker return with Shearlings and we would need another member of staff if we added ewe lambs into the equation.”

Richard says his team of staff are the biggest asset in the farm’s management and having three years ago taken on the role of director of the estate, he is invariably spending less time on the farm, with more onus put on John Harrison.

“The new post has opened more doors and let me do other things which include safeguarding the estate during such events as Kendal Calling, Lowther Show in August and the 10k Rotary Club Road Race.

“There are a number of other diversifications too, but my heart is with the farm, I love going to the sheep sales.”

And just as Jim Lowther had employed a strap line during his interview process Richard was keen to share his “Profit, Passion, Planet and People. Passion is key – you have to want to do it.

“We must always be looking forward, pushing forward to improve. The North of England Mule must maintain her hardiness and longevity without compromising on skin, length and confirmation.

“We are not interested in paying £30 premium on a black and white head when the sheep will ultimately drop two white headed lambs. Mouths are crucial for longevity and perhaps this needs to be addressed now. The future of the North of England Mule is the commercial man.”