This week I’m chatting to farmer turned builder turned farmer again Neil Quinlan about his journey back in to the industry and his first year of farming. 

James: What’s your farming background?

Neil Quinlan: My grandfather was a dairy farmer on a tenanted farm on Cholmondeley Estate. He’d taken over from his father. My uncle then took over the tenancy. So from a very early age I was involved with farming. Working in the holidays and weekends as much as I could. Milking, harvest and of course dreaded small bale carting!

My love of farming continued but I kind of lost my way in my late teens early twenties and turned to building, eventually setting up my own small business. I’d always kept in touch with the industry and had hoped to go back. I got to 30 and thought it’s now or never. And besides I generally prefer cows to people. An opportunity came up to work on a neighbouring farm and they put a huge amount of faith and trust in me considering I’d been away from the industry for so long. So I’m very grateful to them for that.

J: Quite a lot of farming folk drift away to try different things but seem to never really get away from the pull of farming! The skills you developed in building must come in handy about the farm though! What was it like getting back in to farming? Was it like riding a bike?

N: My building skills have definitely come in handy. Especially as we recently converted an old cubicle shed in to calf housing. I slipped back in to farming quite easily. Again this was due to the guys I worked for. They made me feel part of the team from day one. Made me feel like part of the decision-making process and were very open about what some might call sensitive information on the farm such as finances.

Of course it was great to be working back with cows again. I did find it difficult working weekends and I’d also gone from being my own boss to working for someone else which had its own challenges, but that meant holiday pay!

J: How long were you back in farming before your mind began to think of farming in your own right and was it a hard decision to make leaving your job in an attempt to make it on your own?

N: I’d thought about having my own farm since I was this big!

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I didn’t really think about it though while I was in my first job back as it wasn’t an option. I thought work hard, learn and save and see what opportunities become available.

It was a hard decision to make because the chaps I worked for had a lot invested in me and I felt that I was letting them down. I now rear their heifers so at least they know they can trust me. (I hope!)

J: Could you give us a wee insight in to your farming enterprise?

N: We contract farm my wife’s family farm. 80 acres, so not huge, but it’s a start. We rear our neighbours dairy heifers on a price per head per week. This has been a relatively cheap way to get in to farming. Although we’ve still had to invest a considerable sum ie a tractor is a necessity.

Everything we have bought has been looked at closely, and if it was a luxury item or not paying its way we haven’t had it.To try and expand the business slightly on our first year we’ve been buying dairy beef cross animals. Rearing these to 12-14 weeks and selling direct to a buyer who’s currently taking 8 a month. These animals come from the dairy farm we rear for so as not to increase the risk of T.b. Unfortunately the farm in its current guise only provides a part-time income so I’ve been doing some work off farm (building) to supplement my income. With a view to increasing the farm business. So if anyone has any offers…

J: We’re incredibly lucky to be relatively TB free up here in Scotland, but having lived and worked in Gloucestershire I know what it’s like to farm in the constant shadow of Bovine Tb. Is it a big problem in Cheshire?

N: Yes. Hear unfortunate stories all the time, and the regular testing puts stress on the workforce and animals and of course an added cost.

J: I assume you are on annual testing?

N: Sadly. I don’t know how the guys that are on 60 day testing manage.

J: It’s great that you have maintained a good relationship with your previous employer, that enables you to work with someone you know well, know the quality of the cattle and can limit your risk to Tb.

How have you found the new beef enterprise so far?

N: As everything seems to be in agriculture, small margins. We’re lucky that we have a regular buyer which incidentally came about through twitter. I’d like to increase the throughput of calves but this would mean more investment and again, we can only source calves from one farm. Although this is a good selling point for any prospective buyers.

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We’re rearing a mix of Angus and blue bulls and heifers after what I can only describe as a disaster with some Friesian bulls. Nobody wanted them. We sold them at a bad time of year also. So lesson learned there. I don’t want to blindly produce if we haven’t got an end-user. It’s not been easy getting in to the cycle of selling monthly. We had to buy, and feed three batches of calves before we saw any return on our investment. This was where working off farm helped.

J: What age are the cattle you’re working with? When do they arrive on the farm and at what age are they leaving?

N: The beef animals arrive ideally no older than 2 weeks old and are sold on to a grower at 12-14 weeks. So we’re dealing with the most risky part but we’re short on space and in a nvz so it works for us.

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The dairy heifers arrive at 10-12 weeks old and go home at hopefully 22 months with 2 months to go before they calve. That’s the target anyway…

J: That’ll put less pressure on the farm, forage wise, too. Are you producing a lot of silage?

N: We made nearly 500 round bales last summer. I was pleased with how it analysed as it was my first attempt at making it for myself. I’ve never frantically refreshed the BBC weather app so much in my life! It’s fed well in practice too. Average DLWG over all the age groups is 0.92kg. With having such a variety of ages we ended up with four grazing groups last year. This made rotational grazing challenging especially with the feast or famine season we had regarding grass growth last season in this part of the country.

J: Do you make the silage yourself or is it a contractor job? You mentioned you’d had to invest a considerable sum in to a tractor?

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N: We did a fair bit of the mowing but that was with a borrowed mower. I don’t really like borrowing machinery as it has a tendency to break. Such as the time I borrowed a tedder and the a whole rotor disconnected itself from the machine… So I tedd the grass out with a haybob that’s older than me and let a contractor row, bale and wrap it. We then hire a neighbour’s JCB to shift the bales. We’re so small investing in machinery would never pay for itself. The tractor is predominantly used to feed and bed down and this season spread fertiliser.

J: You’ve also had the silage analysed, how important is it, in your opinion, to know what’s in your bales (or pit?) and what you’re feeding?

N: I think it’s important to analyse feed. We’re able to adjust levels of bought in feed accordingly to match desired growth rates. We’ve had a consultant help us with this and I have to say he has been a fantastic help in our first year and I’m grateful to him.

J: It’s great you’ve had help from friends, neighbours and consultants. You’re part of the NFU dairy development group too. What does that entail and how has it benefited you?

N: It’s given me a much more in-depth insight in to the industry as well as an overview of the red tractor scheme and also AHDB Dairy. We’ve visited milk processors, irish cooperatives had media and presentation training. Next week we’re off to westminster to meet George Eustice. It’s also given me the opportunity to meet like-minded young farmers.

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J: You do your fair share of promoting the industry too. You have your own blog and you also took the message direct to the public at last year’s Countryfile Live event. What drives you to promote the industry and how important is it for British farmers to tell ‘their story’?

N: I think it’s very important and that’s why I do it. Nobody else is going to stand up for us and people are very quick to “farmer bash” So I want to show the real and positive side of farming to try an reconnect people to the origin of their food. We all have a part to play in breaking the stereotype of the straw chewing yokel who farms because they aren’t intelligent enough to do anything else.

J: What advice would you give to any one looking to get in to agriculture?

N: Learn as much as you can. Try and see many different systems as you can. Try and travel. Broaden your horizons as much as possible and don’t fall in to a rut of pre conceived ideas. Be prepared to work hard but that is true of any industry if you want to succeed. Farming can be all-encompassing, so don’t forget to spend time with your friends and family. And if you’re starting your own business make sure there’s a market for what you’re producing. Budget. Reassess the budget throughout the year and look at all expenditure. How is going to create a return.

J: And finally, what does 2017 have in store for Neil Quinlan?

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N: Much of the same. 12 months in our new venture will be up in May so we can assess in detail how we’ve done financially. I’d like to expand the business bur I’m not really sure what direction to go in. Land is scarce here. We’re nearing our NVZ limit with stock that we do have. I’d be very interested in looking at a joint venture or share farming opportunities as we don’t have masses of cash to invest. I’d also like to take my own advice and travel. But most importantly keeping the wife happy and on side!

You can keep up with Neil’s venture on Twitter (@neilquinlan) or by following his blog Quinlan and Cows

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