Building on changes to both genetics and management made in recent years is not only increasing profitability for the 2021 Sheep Innovator of the Year Matt Harding, but is also reducing the carbon footprint of the farm. Angela Calvert finds out more.

Producing rams for the commercial market is the key aim for Leicestershire farmer Matt Harding. But this has not always been the whole story. For many years his Bentley flock of pedigree Suffolks was extremely successful in both the sale and showring. The sheep were lambed in January and the lambs were creep fed, with the aim of selling them later that year. Matt, who farms with his wife, Ellie, and parents, Charles and Jan, at Atterton, always had commercial as well as a pedigree customers and were big supporters of performance recording. But, around 20 years ago, it became clear that sheep aimed at the showring were not the type required by commercial farmers. “Targeting both markets was not working and we took the decision to focus on producing rams for commercial farmers and selling them direct from the farm as shearlings,” explains Matt. This led them to switch lambing to March and rear all the sheep on a lowcost forage-based system. They introduced some New Zealand genetics to improve traits such as ease of lambing, clean back ends and lamb vigour and combined them with their high-performance genetics and now focus on producing easy lambing rams with good growth rates which will finish on forage.


The Hardings were also instrumental in developing the Aberblack composite breed in conjunction with Innovis which originated from using Charollais rams on high performance Suffolk ewes. They are currently running 180 Suffolk ewes, 170 Aberblacks and a nucleus flock of 100 Aberfields. All rams are sold direct from the farm, many to returning customers. Word of mouth has been a great marketing tool but during the pandemic Matt made extensive use of social media. “We were almost forced into using social media much more because of the pandemic but it has really raised the profile of the business and we will continue to develop how we use it in the future. “Last year we sold 190 rams straight off the farm and set ourselves a target of selling 250 this year which we hope to meet. “This is probably the optimum number we can produce on this system with current resources, but we are continually looking to broaden our customer base and, as costs rise and producers look to reduce their carbon footprint, there is definitely increasing demand for sheep to finish on forage-based systems.”


Grassland management has become increasingly important to the business and rotational grazing has been in place for four or five years now. The sheep are run in breed mobs and moved every four days or so, coming back onto the same paddocks 21 days later. Recently, arable has been taken out of the rotation and the farm now comprises solely of permanent grass, herbal leys and grass and clover leys. The amount of clover in the leys has been increased and they are left down longer, all contributing to reducing inorganic fertiliser use. As part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, last year, four hectares (10 acres) of GS4 mix, a herbal ley which is grown without fertiliser, was grown. It has to be left for five weeks to flower before it is cut to comply with the scheme. “We found the aftermaths were ideal for weaning lambs onto, so we have increased it to 14ha (35 acres) this year and we get paid £358/ha for growing it, so it is well worthwhile.”


Previously, Aberdeen-Angus cross store cattle had been reared on contract, but in a change to the system these are now run independently which gives more flexibility as they can be traded at any time, if more grass is needed for the sheep. Being innovative in his approach to business and being prepared to make significant changes to meet an evolving market was key to winning the Sheep Innovator of the Year award, but Matt admits to being ‘blown away’ by their success. “It came as a total surprise. As we no longer attend shows and sales we don’t get recognition for winning or achieving a high price which we once did, and I didn’t actually realise that I missed it. “But to be recognised and rewarded by the industry for what we are doing is amazing and made us incredibly proud. “The reach of the awards is huge. Afterwards, we were congratulated by so many people – from local farmers to people in Ireland and abroad and it has really raised our profile which has to be a positive.”