Farm of the Week: How North Yorkshire farmer turned to self-sufficiency and organic systems

Making more out of less, making decisions based on figures and stark economic realities and caring for the area in which he lives are all part of how a North Yorkshire farmer runs and sustains his enterprise.

Mark Exelby of The Hutts Farm, Grewelthorpe converted to an organic farming system between 2005 and 2007 across the 480 acres he farms today, which is made up of 140 acres of tenanted land at Grewelthorpe plus another 60 acres owned 17 miles away at Gatenby, where he grew up, plus various other agreements in both areas.

Mark said his decision to go organic was not motivated by some kind of altruistic nature but was purely down to how he could make his farm business work.

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“It was a purely economic decision. My wife Lynne and I have always been more concerned with livestock rather than buying machinery and going organic has worked for us.

Mark and Lynne Exelby of The Hutts Farm, GrewelthorpeMark and Lynne Exelby of The Hutts Farm, Grewelthorpe
Mark and Lynne Exelby of The Hutts Farm, Grewelthorpe

“Because we are organic we can’t push anything too much, but we are self-sufficient. We don’t buy anything in. All of our stock is fed on homegrown oats and clover silage.

“The fact that we are organic farmers also plays a big part in our relationship with some of our landlords who are environmentalists and see the benefit of conservation and promotion of wildlife.”

Sheep and cattle make up Mark’s livestock business with a flock of 350 breeding ewes and 60 suckler cows. He also grows 60 acres of oats.

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Mark said he is constantly working at how his returns can be improved, whether in lambing percentage, lambs finishing earlier and achieving a better meat animal for processing.

“We have reduced our breeding ewe flock numbers since we started and we are doing the job better. We are now making as much out of 350 ewes as we were out of 500.”

Mark said he is also in the fifth year of an AHDB-funded sheep project called Ram Compare that has focused his mind on tup selection.

“The AHDB, through Signet recording and ram specialist Sam Boon, are trying to encourage sheep breeders to be more interested in terminal sires and their estimated breeding values (EBVs).

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“I’ve been buying EBV recorded tups for 10 years. We have been recording our ewes and our lamb growth all that time and it means you can calculate better what the predicted growth rate will be, rather than just watching and hoping. From my experience, using the figures makes a substantial gain rather than what can sometimes be seen as random selection.

“It’s not rocket science, pig breeders and the dairy sector have been using EBVs for years. As far as I’m concerned as a commercial farmer it makes sense to use the professional calculations. We also use CT scanning for eye muscle and backfat.”

Mark said he has found the results quite enlightening.

“We could receive anything. Last year we had two Charollais, two Texel, a Hampshire, South Down and a SuffTex with New Zealand genetics. I split the ewes by age so that each tup has the same sort of peer group to tup.

“I went in with a preconceived idea that Texel and Charollais would be the best breed of ram, but what Sam hammers home is that you are not to be influenced by the breed but by the result.

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“When I first saw that I’d received a Hampshire I was thinking it wasn’t going to do much good but the breed has come on leaps and bounds and for growth rate its lambs have compared favourably against the Texels and the Charollais.

“The Texels were still top, but the Hampshire came in next with the Charollais just behind. They were all similar.

“Until we get the details back from the processors, when they go, I can’t give a full analysis, but it shows what Ram Compare can do.”

Mark starts lambing at the end of April and through Ram Compare and resting his ewes he has seen an increase in lambing percentage.

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“We wean early at 11 weeks and get the lambs off to Gatenby on clean grazing. It gives the ewes a rest, which I believe is critical, and gives them time to get back condition, and keeping the lambs on the ewes any longer doesn’t do them any favours.

“We don’t feed any concentrates, everything is fed on home produced forage and our 17 mile distance between the farm operation is a blessing as it means both farms get a break at vital times.

Mark said his herd starts calving around the same time as lambing starts.

“We try to have everything calved within 14 weeks. It’s a breeding pyramid of a few Limousin-cross and British Blue-cross cows at the top and then we breed out of those, out of the Hereford or Angus-crossed bulls, and then go back to the Hereford or Angus out of those if we want something a bit special.

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“Once again I look closely at what the cows are producing and their processing results.

“We use a bit of AI for replacements out of top quality bulls. We sell all progeny through Dunbia, as the sheep, at between 20-24 months which means we have around 180-head, with the 60 calves from last year grazing at Gatenby.

Mark said his latest role outside of the day-to-day running of the farm is as chairman of the Farming in Protected Landscapes (FIPL) panel within the Nidderdale AONB.

“The loss of the basic payment scheme is going to have a huge impact on farming and the FIPL has an important role to play. My main priority with it is to help enable farmers to produce a profit through innovation.

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Mark and Lynne have three daughters – Becky, who works with Mark; Sally who works with Harrogate Borough Council; and Ellie who is a partner in the farm business and a land agent.

Mark said he has used Ellie’s advice.

“Ellie is great on future proofing our longer term farming arrangements.