Jonty & Mel Brunyee
Our vision for Conygree Farm is to develop a diverse sustainable farm business following holistic and regenerative principles. We seek a range of environmental, community and economic outcomes with the aim of putting more back in than we take out - rebuilding natural, social and financial capital.
The system is low input/premium output, respecting flora, fauna, landscape, heritage, air, soil and water. We aim to be energy efficient and build soil carbon. Although commercially smart (the farm must be profitable) livestock numbers and crop yields do not drive the business.
Our primary objectives (mostly funded by the Environmental Stewardship scheme) are focused on restoring species rich limestone grassland (45ha of wildflower meadows) and providing nesting/feeding habitat for farmland birds (10ha of stubble/fallow, unharvested cereals, and insect/pollinator rich field margins). Herb rich leys (14ha) are also an important part of the mix.
Our rare breed livestock (60 Cotswold sheep, some crossed with a Hampshire, and 12 Traditional Hereford cows) are our grazing tools producing premium beef, lamb and hogget. We also finish a few traditional breed pigs a year.
As our stocking rates are low (0.4 LU/ha) adding value by direct sales in crucial to our business model. We keep this simple. Most of our meat is sold direct to local customers via our website and box scheme.
Our Pasture Fed ethos (assured by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association) means that our animals eat a natural diet of grass, wildflowers and herbs - never any grains or imported soya. We are also fully organic (assured by OF&G). Income is supplemented by a small DIY livery on the farm and educational activity.
Pasture for Life at Conygree Farm
Following the Pasture for Life ethos is at the heart of our farm business as it combines many of our beliefs. (Find out what drives our commitment to the Pasture for Life ethos at Conygree here).
We are certified farmer members of the Pasture-Fed Livesock Association (PFLA), which allows us to use the Pasture for Life label and QR code traceability system on our meat.
The PFLA helps to promote the ethos, our farm and our products, and quite a few of our customers have come to us through their website and marketing. The direct to consumer and retail market for guaranteed 100% pasture fed meat and milk is growing - we are in very exciting times.
We also find being part of the farmer-friendly PFLA network invaluable. There is always someone out there willing to offer help with practical queries and technical information. It is such as positive organisation. This was the main reason I volunteered to be a PFLA Director in 2015 - to help take Pasture for Life to scale.
Our records and Pasture for Life credentials are checked once a year by Acoura, via OF&G, as part of our normal organic inspection. Although there is an additional charge and a little extra paperwork this is kept to a minimum.
Many Pasture for Life farmers are organic, quite a few are conventional. Some, like us, are more extensive and nature conservation focused, while others are more commercial and practice high intensity mob grazing. Every farm is different but we all draw from agro-ecological principles.
The sheep flock
Our primary breed of sheep is the rare breed Cotswold, a heavy longwool type. The ewes typically lamb at 160% and are good mothers.
Replacements are bred from half the flock, with the other half put to a Hampshire ram to improve carcase quality. Both breeds fatten well on low input pastures with no supplementary feed.
Lambing takes place in April and May, outside, straight onto growing grass, with lambs weaned in August. Most of the lamb is sold direct to consumers via our website and meat boxes - lamb from August to January, then hogget and mutton.
Lambs finish at 40kg liveweight and hoggs up to 45kg. Grades vary, but most are around R3H, yielding around 18kg of cut meat, working closely with out abattoir/butcher (J Broomhalls Ltd in Eastington). We sell half lamb boxes (9kg) for £74.
We do not push our animals too hard - some finish slowly which adds to the taste and spreads the time when they are ready to go in a box. We don’t want them all ready in September. Proper pasture fed hogget, which has had its second spring at species rich pasture, is the best and one of our specialities.
We often get asked how we cope with pregnant ewes without recourse to supplementary feed? It is pretty simple. Native breed sheep are designed to thrive from forage, so as long as you accept a lower lambing rate and maybe a few extra days to finish, then it works. Select those ewes with the ability to finish on grass. We haven’t lost a ewe at lambing with a metabolic disorder or a prolapse for 3 years - since we switched from Lleyn/Texel crosses and concentrates!
At £88 per ewe, our enterprise gross margin (GM) for the year ending 2015 was higher than the AHDB Stocktake top third figure of £66 per ewe. However, our low stocking rate results in a low GM per ha figure of £277 compared to £660 for the Stocktake top third. But, crucially, once HLS grassland and traditional breed income foregone payments are added back in, the sheep enterprise GM stands at a very healthy £536/ha, plus all the additional environmental and public benefits. Our fixed costs (labour, buildings and machinery deprecation etc.) are relatively low resulting in a positive net margin.
I am from an old Dutch farming family (turning the soil in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire since the early 17th century) and have a farm conservation background. From a young age, although I knew I wanted to farm, I also knew that I didn’t want to be part of what I perceived to be a damaging industry. My main farm jobs in the 1980s were planting trees, digging ponds and moaning at my production-orientated dad and elder brother!
This early passion led to reading work by Jonathan Porritt and gaining a first degree in Rural Resource Management from Seale Hayne before studying Environmental Management at postgraduate level in Sheffield. My first proper job was as an adviser with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) in Lincolnshire, working on the original Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Things go full circle it seems.
I have now been a farm tenant of the National Trust at Conygree for over 11 years, arriving in the Cotswolds and returning to my practical farming roots in 2004. Mel, who previously helped manage some of Norfolk’s finest nature reserves with sheep, cattle and semi-feral ponies, moved to the Cotswolds in 2010, and now runs the farm with me and our young family.
If the farming life wasn’t hectic enough I am also a Senior Lecturer in farm business management and sustainable agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester. Inspiring tomorrow’s land managers is crucial and I love the job. It’s better than night lambing anyway!
I was honoured to be awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship in 2015, part sponsored by the National Trust. Over the last few months I have been lucky enough to travel around the world looking at how simple farmers like us can build a sustainable and regenerative business based on our natural capital. It has been a wonderful year meeting heroes including Joel Salatin, Gary Zimmer, the team at Rodale Institute and Michael Ableman in North America; discovering the work of Wendell Berry; and exploring the limestone grasslands of Transylvania. My Nuffield report is due in November this year so watch this space!
View Jonty's Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust Report 'Building a Sustainable Farm Business' here.
Find out more about Conygree Farm by visiting the website and following on social media.