Our Farm

Whyle House Lamb started out as a hobby, providing lamb to friends and family and we want to keep that sense of community as our business grows. People buy our lamb because they know where it's come from, because they know we look after our stock and of course, because it tastes so good!

Every single customer from those early days is still with us and many are taking more each year for themselves, for their families or for friends. From June onwards people start asking us when this year's lambs will be ready which is a great advertisement for our product.

Our home and our sheep

Whyle House is situated in the pretty hamlet of Whyle, about 5 miles from Leominster in Herefordshire. The business is run by Andy and Frances Offer with help from family and friends at busy times.

We currently farm 10 acres of our own and rent extra grassland as needed. We now have 130 ewes and aim to produce around 230 lambs a year. Demand is now such that all these will go through the meat business for direct sale - we hardly ever sell into the wholesale market nowadays!

Our business is about producing local, good quality food. We use the best possible standards of husbandry and ensure our stock are well looked after without being 'molly coddled'. They are not pets, they have to earn their living but in return we provide them with food, shelter and health care to make sure they have comfortable and productive lives.

Our sheep are Suffolk cross Mule ewes and we use a Texel ram on them which is why the ewes have black faces but produce white or speckled faced lambs. This is the traditional method of producing lamb in Herefordshire but we do find the ewes a bit heavy to handle and because they are cross breds we have to buy in all our replacement stock. As an experiment we now have some Lleyn ewes and two Lleyn rams - Fergus and Rocky. These should be a bit easier to handle and produce lambs which will finish more easily off grass and we can breed our own replacement stock which will save us money and allow us to select the type of animal we need.

Because we sell all our lamb direct to our customers, we don't have the same pressure to 'finish' lambs in batches for market. This means they are weaned fairly late in the year and are not put on high energy diets to finish quickly. They are taken in small batches to the abattoir, always by Andy himself and he personally ensures they are treated well.

We are very aware that some people may find it difficult to associate our photos of new lambs with our final product but we believe we need to re-connect people with the way their food is produced - not in an 'in your face' kind of way but by presenting the facts and describing the steps we take to make sure our animals have as good a life as possible.

Our Sheep farming year

Autumn

The process starts when the rams go out. We move the ewes onto fresh pasture two weeks before-hand to 'flush' them - which means to encourage them to produce twins. This is the absolutely crucial stage and if we get this wrong then we either end up with lots of triplets which is very bad news as ewes can only suckle two lambs, or too many singles which reduces our productivity. The ideal is a '200% lambing percentage' with every ewe rearing twins.

Winter

The rams are removed at Christmas time and we bring the ewes inside from mid January for 6 to 8 weeks before lambing. This makes it easier for us to feed them properly and keep an eye on them and gives the grassland a rest. It is expensive in terms of feed but we think it's worthwhile for improvement in management of the ewes and the consequent reduction in lamb losses.

We scan the ewes in mid January so we know how many lambs each ewe is carrying. This ensures we can separate them into groups and feed those carrying twins a bit extra while restricting the singles to prevent the lambs getting too big. It is one of the facts of sheep farming life that ewes carrying singles are greedier than those carrying twins and if left to their own devices will give themselves real problems at lambing time.

Spring

We lamb most of our ewes in March, hopefully just as the grass starts to grow and the ewes and lambs go outside after two days in their 'mothering pens'. During this time we check them very carefully to ensure the lambs are feeding properly and protect the ewe and lambs from the various diseases. If the weather is very cold, we might put the ewes and lambs into bigger batches and keep them in for a few more days but they are much better outside in the fresh air. We also lamb a few ewes early (in February) so that we get some early lambs for our Farmers' Market trade and if we're lambing young ewes we usuallyleave them until April. this can mean three lambings in one season - which is a lot of sleepless nights!

Summer

We treat the lambs against blowfly strike in late May with one of the modern 'pour-on' treatments which is much safer than dipping for shepherd and sheep and also protect them from worms.

The ewes and lambs are brought inside in late June for shearing and foot bathing to protect their feet and we weigh the lambs for the first time to see which ones are likely to be ready first.

The heaviest lambs will be 'drawn' - i.e. sent to the abattoir - in July without being weaned to avoid unnecessary extra stress and at about this time we wean the remaining lambs to give the ewes a rest and allow them to put on weight again. Providing milk for two lambs who by this time are almost as big as her is hard work, especially for the younger ewes and they need a break before the process starts again.

Meanwhile the lambs are now put on the best pastures to keep them growing and are checked and weighed regularly.

The other big summer job is silage and haymaking. We need to conserve surplus grass in May and June to see us through the winter. Hay is dried grass and is has to be cut, turned periodically and then baled and put in the barn. We need at least four days of fine weather to make hay so there is much worried consulting of the forecasts and we tend to do it in batches so if the rain spoils one lot, we'll have more to cut later. Silage is pickled grass - it's baled into big round bales and wrapped in plastic to keep the air out. The moiture and sugars in the grass ferment to produce vinegar which then stops the grass going mouldy. Silage is a better feed and is much less weather dependent than hay but is expensive to make and needs special machinery to feed it.

The lambs are sent away on Mondays in batches of 5 or 6 as they reach their target weight and required level of 'finish' or fatness. The lambs are then collected each Friday as carcases and hung in our own cold room for another week before being butchered by Andy to individual customer's requirements.

We are very careful to minimise stress on the lambs during this part of the process - for obvious welfare reasons but also because the quality of the meat is affected if the animals are frightened. It is not a process we enjoy but we do try to ensure we do it to the highest possible standards. The lambs are brought inside the night before to keep them quiet and comfortable and they are loaded onto the trailer and taken to the abattoir by Andy himself first thing the following morning. They are familiar with the trailer as we use it to move them around the farm and this reduces stress during loading. Their journey time is a little under 30 minutes and we take time to make sure they are unloaded with equal care and protected from further stress at the abattoir.

We now produce lamb all year round for our Farmers' Market customers which is a challenge and requires very careful management of the lambs throughout their growing period. The last of our lambs go in May/June and then we start on the new season ones in July.

....and so it all starts again!