Learning by his mistakes is helping new entrant Chris McWhirter achieve his farming goals, as Sara Gregson reports.

Chris McWhirter and his partner Claire have been farming at Lower Farm, High Bickington in North Devon for six years - coming towards the end of their first Devon County Council farm tenancy.

“I am not from a farming family, but knew I wanted to work in agriculture since having a Saturday job on a farm when I was 13,” Chris explains.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, including a course at Plumpton College, contract shepherding in Dorset and setting up a ewe pregnancy scanning business.”

South West Farmer: Some of Chris' sheepSome of Chris' sheep

Chris was awarded the tenancy in January 2015 to start in April and started with a half-share of 230 ewes and five dairy-bred beef calves.

While numbers remained low, Chris was still working four days a week for other farmers and continues to pregnancy scan ewes to this day.

“There is a lot of advice out there – but to be honest if I bought everything the feed rep and vet told me to, I would be bankrupt by now.

“I have come to realise that what is important to me is making sure there is enough good quality forage for the sheep and cows. This is what now drives the business.”

Early years

The original flock contained some purebred Dorsets and Chris lambed an early flock of 40 ewes at Christmas, followed by successive batches until April, for the first three years. But the cold winter of 2018/2019 and summer drought that followed, took its toll and Chris lost money.

“I started doing the AHDB Farmbench financial benchmarking exercise which showed early lambing was not the way forward,” says Chris.

“I was hungry for information and signed up for the local AHDB discussion group. And with grass and forage now sitting at the heart of my business, the other person I listen to is John Harris of Oliver Seeds. He has always given me more time than I deserve.”

Chris soil tested the whole farm when he first arrived and applied lime to bring the pH up to the higher levels needed to support good grass growth. The indices for phosphate (P) and potash (K) were also low in some areas and Chris has applied appropriate fertiliser to remedy this.

The farm resides across a valley, with a wet, heavy clay side and a drier side. Chris has been reseeding with Century, a late perennial ryegrass, timothy and white clover blend which produces a hard-wearing, dense sward for grazing.

“I definitely want to grow more legumes,” Chris adds. “Fertiliser prices are ridiculously high and legumes offer a mixed diet and soil structure benefits and free nitrogen.”

Current system

Almost 550 ewes and ewe lambs will be tupped this year to lamb next April when grass growth is at its best.

The breeding sheep are now predominantly north country mules which tend to lamb unaided and are good mothers.

Some of the lambs were weaned earlier than usual this year at around 11 weeks of age, to give the ewes more recovery time after the cold spring.

The rest of the lambs were turned onto Raptor, a Tornado ryegrass and Winfred forage rape catch crop mixture to finish.

The sheep are all outwintered on winter keep, mainly on local dairy farms. Currently most lambs are sold to ABP and last year averaged 20.4kg deadweight.

Beef cattle

Chris buys milk calves from February to October, preferably from local dairy farmers and rears 75 each year.

He sells reared calves at four months of age and 12- to 18-month-old stores through Holsworthy Market.

Cattle rotationally graze the grass fields from early spring until autumn. This year they will be outwintered on fodder beet with access to grass silage bales.

Future

“I hope I am building a system that can be profitable without subsidy,” says Chris.

“Something is always changing in farming – and we have to be flexible.

South West Farmer: Chris, Claire and Jack with MaxChris, Claire and Jack with Max

“I have always wanted to farm for myself and I achieved that when I was 23.

"Thanks to support from my family, using money they had set aside for university fees, a lot of hard work and input from good and trusted advisers, things are starting to work.

“We have just been granted another seven years at Lower Farm and the future is looking good.”