In this week’s women in ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Laura Hinnekens. Laura explains how she went from being a farm worker to a self-employed shepherdess since moving to Scotland.
Laura, a 32-year-old Belgium-native, is a full-time farmer in Biggar, Scotland.
She does not hail from a farming background and was first introduced to the farming world at the age of eighteen.
Her passion was ignited when asked by a vet to check some ewes during the lambing period.
Despite this, Laura has described herself as being “obsessed” with animals from a young age.
“From a very young age, I have been obsessed with animals. I have always been fascinated by animal behaviour; horses, dogs, cattle, sheep, anything,” she told That’s Farming.
Laura moved to Scotland and was eager to get involved in the agricultural industry, particularly acquiring her own sheep holding.
The vision of having sheep of her own, as well as having a farm to manage, was an “ideal world” for Laura.
“I was self-employed at the time, and it seemed then to be so difficult to find such a holding.”
“I went to all the meetings for new entrants and spoke to all the people I met about what I was looking for.”
“There had been a grant in place for new entrant farmers in Scotland, which then disappeared, making the dream even harder to live.”
Following this, Laura met with a local agricultural consultant, who found her an ideal opportunity to acquire a 150-acre farm in South Lanarkshire.
“I left all my farm jobs near Perth and moved down the country. This is one of the best moves I have ever made.”
The rented farm is in Quothquan, Biggar in Scotland. Andy and Lyn Barr are the owners of the low-land enterprise.
“Andy and Lyn were very conscious of how hard it was for a new entrant to get a foot in the industry. They were looking to give a new entrant a chance to build a flock.”
Euan Mackinnon, Laura’s partner, is also involved in the running of the sheep enterprise.
Last year, Laura also contracted a hill farm not far from the farm she has rented in the Scottish Borders.
Breeds include North Country Cheviots, Cheviot mules, Texel-crosses and Bluefaced Leicesters.
“Cheviots are very strong sheep. They are absolutely fantastic mothers. It is easy to keep them in good condition.”
“The Cheviot mules are a great cross that sells very well, as they as MV accredited. Ewes produce a Texel-cross lamb, which fattens quicker. This also helps with cash flow.”
Building up a flock
Laura also farms a small flock of Blue Leicesters to produce replacement tups.
“The traditional-type tups are strong, and we get very good results at scanning time,” she explained.
Two years ago, Laura began with 150 North Country Cheviots, 250 Cheviot ewes and 100 Cheviot mules.
“Luckily, at that time, the market price for sheep was affordable for me, especially when compared to this year.”
Indoor lambing commences on the farm from April 1st. “I do my own lambing for three weeks. Then the contracted hill ewes begin lambing. I leave my friend, Sabine, in charge of the shed, along with a night lamber.”
“Andy and Lyn, owners of the farm, are very involved as well during the whole lambing period.”
While Laura does not use lambing cameras in sheds, she ensures that there is someone in the shed 24/7 during the lambing season.
When asked why lambing takes place in April, Laura tells That’s Farming, “this is the optimum time for grass growth. Ewes go out to grass as they lamb and do not get any extra feed.”
Laura leaves the tups with the ewes for two cycles only to achieve a compact lambing period. In turn, the farmers have a very busy ten days of lambing.
The farm aims to maintain a closed flock, where possible.
“The pure North Country Cheviot ewe lambs stay for replacements. Furthermore, the Cheviot mule ewe lambs are sold as MV accredited gimmers.”
“The Blue Leicesters stay as tup lambs, and the ewe lambs are retained to the small flock of Blue Leicesters only.”
In turn, progeny on the farm that is not suitable for breeding are sold as fat lambs.
“All wether lambs are sold fat at Lanark market, such as the Cheviot mules, Cheviot, and Texel-cross.”
“We tend to sell the mules a bit heavier, around 45-50kg. Cheviots and Texels are sold at weights ranging from 40-45kg.”
Any lambs that are not ready by November go to stubble turnips as a mechanism of fattening the lambs for the Spring market.
Targeted Selected Treatment
Laura also voluntarily participates in an experimental project called TST (targeted selected treatment).
“We weigh our lambs every three weeks to check if they are reaching their target weights. This process involves recording the grass growth and the weight of each lamb.”
“If they do not perform well, they get if wormer. If they do perform well, they get zero treatment.
“Sample analysis is done before and after treatments of animals to check for any resistance. A team follows us for the duration of the project.”
Ensuring animal health is at the forefront of this flock’s priorities.
Enjoying the Scottish farming life
Like many farmers, Laura’s favourite aspect of working full-time on the farm is working with the animals. Her main ambition is to improve the flock annually and see the difference every year.
“I like being able to improve the flock itself and improve the way I do things, to make the farm more efficient and to benefit the flock overall.”
Also a keen sheepdog competitor, Laura takes part in the International Sheepdog Society trials all-year-round. This is another aspect of country life that she particularly enjoys.
A particular highlight of Laura’s career in sheep farming has been progressing from employment as a farm worker to establishing a flock of her own.
Looking towards the future
With no plans to increase the size of her current flock, the next ambition of Hinnekens is to build the farm assets.
“As this is only my third lambing season coming up, there is still lots to improve. Last year, the sheep were MV accredited and are vaccinated for both Toxo and Enzo.”
Laura arrived in Scotland without a lot of knowledge of sheep and any background in sheep farming. She now successfully runs a 150-acre sheep enterprise with a flock of 500 ewes.
She concluded, “my advice to sheep farmers would be to think outside the box rather than following traditional systems”.
“I would advise you to go and look, or work, in different farms and see what systems could work for you and your farm. People are often very willing to share and give advice if we ask,” the shepherdess concluded.
If you would like to share your story like this shepherdess, please email [email protected]
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