Mr Peter Cowling, Countess Farm, Dartmoor, Devon
Meat is what the market is all about. More muscle sells better and attracts premium prices.
Standing 2000ft above sea level and with 1600mm of rain per annum, Countess Farm, a predominantly 250 acre grass farm, lies on the east side of Dartmoor. On a good day, Plymouth Estuary can be seen in one direction and the Blackdown Hills in the other. The Cowling family has farmed Countess Farm for generations and it was a dairy unit up until recently. Due to the size of the farm and the changes in milk price, Mr Cowling decided to diversify in the early 80’s, starting with the introduction of a flock of sheep to the farm, that had seen cattle grazing the slopes for the last 200 years. Mr Peter Cowling clearly stated that sheep were ‘not his thing’ but was willing to give it a go.
With the farm well above sea level, and an average grazing season of about 175 days, Mr Cowling decided to buy 50 Suffolk mules and put them back to the Suffolk for prime lambs, sold through the local market at either Tavistock or Exeter. From the start he quickly realised that hitting the market at the right time in the year would guarantee a profit, so lambing was targeted throughout December and lambs were quickly finished and sold for a premium during March and April.
Gradually the cows were reduced and fewer replacements kept, but sheep numbers were increased and soon numbers had risen to 150 Suffolk mules, 50 Dorset mules and 25 pure Dorsets.
During the Foot and Mouth crisis, a decision was made to sell the dairy cows and concentrate on lamb production, so numbers were increased to 600 breeding ewes providing Texel and Suffolk cross lambs for the prime market, targeting the early markets in March, April and May. The farm suited the early lamb production system well, with south facing fields and well-drained soil. Kale and stubble turnips took the place of grass through the early months of the year with some lambs gazing winter cereal crops some years, depending on the growth.
I met Mr Cowling about 10 years ago in the local market looking at Texel rams, and asked if he had considered a Beltex to put over his flock. He was quite polite in his response and he went away with another Texel ram that year. The following year I met him again at the same sale and asked the same question, this time, with a little persuasion and a lot of stick from his friends, he took one home along with a Suffolk ram.
“Lambing was so easy” he said, “These Beltex lambs are born so small and I hardly needed to touch them. They’re quite tough little things. I never thought they would ever grow big enough to sell, but I was wrong”. The proof was in the cheque from the market, the Beltex lambs sold so much better than the other lambs. “We were also surprised at the size they were when we put them through the scales at home. A lamb you would expect to weigh 35kg was weighing 38 – 40kgs”.
In the last four years, Mr Cowling has not looked back. His 600 ewes are all put to a Beltex sire, with half the lambs going direct to a local meat processor and the others hitting the top price at the local live markets. “I wouldn’t use any other breed on the flock as Beltex are what the buyers are looking for,” he said. “Milk and meat is what you need. The ewes must be of a milky type, as milk fed lambs sell quicker and the less creep they eat the cheaper they are to produce. Meat is what the market is all about. More muscle sells better and attracts premium prices, but this can only be achieved by the selection of the right sire and in our case, the right Beltex sire”.