UK-based 28-year-old full-time sheep farmer, Georgie Stopford, in conversation with That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane. We discuss the childcare professional’s move back to the family farm full-time, her own 450 ewe flock, forming a partnership with her father and her desire to sell directly to consumers.
“My name is Georgie Stopford, and I hail am from a small village just outside of Shaftesbury, Dorset.
I come from a farming background on both sides of my family, and I am the fourth generation farming. Although neither grandparents farmed sheep, one was beef and arable, and the other was dairy.
Some of my earliest farming memories revolve around checking cattle with my father and harvest tea picnics in the cornfields when my grandfather was driving a combine.
Of course, I always spent my summer holidays on the farm exploring and helping (standing in gaps, so animals didn’t run the wrong way) and of course, at lambing time, there was always plenty of bottle lambs to keep me occupied.
My grandparents milked cows here at our home farm, which stopped when I was very young and then we turned to beef and sheep farm.
We now rent ground over Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.
I originally studied childcare at college and worked in a nursery and for several families nannying in the local area for just over six years before coming back to work on the farm full-time.
It was never my intention to come back to the farm. I always had a small flock alongside my childcare job but never thought I would come back to the farm full-time.
All through my school years, I always knew I wanted to work in childcare. So, if someone had told me I would be back working on the farm full-time, I would have said no way!
Although I am still not sure which are more testing, children or sheep!
First purchase at 16 to 450 ewes
At sixteen, I bought my first sheep, some ewe lambs, that I planned to sell as shearlings to make a little bit of money.
However, of course, I ended up keeping them and putting them to the ram.
Since then, I have built up my own flock over the years whilst working full-time to 450 ewes.
This year, I rented ground next door to our home farm and then joined the farm partnership with my father, Dave.
Sucklers, calves and sheep
The farm in Sedgehill, Shaftesbury, Dorset comprises our flock, some sucklers cows and a calf rearing operation.
We rear about 150 calves, some for ourselves and some for another farmer.
We have 12 suckler cows that calve in the spring, and we turn these out to grass as they calve.
And, of course, we have farmyard hens and a few guinea fowl roaming around.
Our flock consists of North Country Mules and Texel-crosses ewes with Texel-x, Dorset-x, Charollais-x, Cheviot-x and Suffolk-x lambs.
We selected NCM ewes for prolificacy, natural mothering instinct and producing a good meat lamb.
Also, we keep our replacement Texel-x ewes out of the mules. The Texel is slightly less prolific but is heavily muscled; therefore, throws a lean meat carcass and finishes on grass.
We have built up the flock to 1,100 ewes and 200 replacement ewe lambs by keeping replacement Texel-cross sheep, and we also buy in North Country Mule ewe lambs.
Lambing, teaser rams and progeny
Lambing takes place indoors from February 1st to the middle of March.
We lamb at this time of year to get progeny finished on spring grass for the early trade.
We use teaser rams to bring the sheep in season quicker. We wean all lambs the first week of July to give the ewes a good rest before going back to tup.
All 1,100 ewes lamb in about six weeks. Furthermore, we use raddle paint on the rams, so we know in which 2-week time frame which ewes are going to lamb when.
We have two extra pairs of hands who help for a couple of weeks during the busiest period, which both work the day times.
Managing a flock of this size involves organisation and a lot of to-do lists!
We strive to breed sheep that are easy to handle, hardy, long, shapey and with a lean carcass.
We send the majority of our lambs to our local abattoir, ABP. Later in the year, we will send the last of our lambs as store lambs to market.
Highs and lows
Lambing time is my favourite time of year on the farm. Bringing new life on the farm will never get old.
Renting ground distances apart is one of the biggest challenges I face. I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the enterprise.
Successful sheep farming
To be a successful sheep farmer, you need to be on the ball all the time.
Prevention is always better than cure! Know your stock and keep a healthy flock.
My advice to aspiring sheep farmers is to get as much hands-on experience on farms as you can. Also, work on lots of different farms as everyone farms in different ways.
It is all about experience. Find out what breeds do best in your area and what would suit your holding.
Start small and get as much experience as you can. Build up your own flock by keeping replacements.
Every day is a learning day, so never be afraid to ask questions! Every breed varies and has different traits. Find one that suits you, your lifestyle and your holding.
Three stand-out milestones
I have had lots of highlights since I began sheep farming. Buying my first lorry load of shearlings in the market on my own and seeing them arrive at home, and a few months later, lambing them all is a stand-out milestone.
This was in my first year of coming back to work at the farm full-time.
Secondly, seeing our flock health improve over the last few years. Spending more time on the farm and with the animals means we see any issues quicker.
And lastly, buying my Collie, who I could not be without.
She had pups last year, and I am bringing her on now to start work on the sheep. Fingers-crossed she will be as good as her mother.
Expanding by a further 250 ewes
We plan on increasing our numbers by another 250 over the next couple of years. Also, we would like to start breeding our own pedigree rams, so we are a closed flock, but nothing in place for this yet.
In five years, I hope we can produce all our own replacement ewes. We would also like to get 150 Scottish Blackfaces, to be able to produce our own Mules.
Overall, I would like to sell meat direct off-farm in a small farm shop and become a completely closed flock,” the UK sheep farmer concluded.
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