Being myself

You may or may not have noticed the removal of my blog and the renaming/deletion of my social media channels back in the Summer, but a few months down the line I just wanted to write this wee piece on Solway Shepherd.

Being ‘Solway Shepherd’ brought me loads of great opportunities. The blog was growing well, my social media following was flying up on a daily basis and helping me to find paid blogging and writing opportunities, as well as shepherding work up and down the country. I got the chance to appear on the BBC, on the radio and in the pages of the Farmers Weekly and the Farmers Guardian to share my farming journey.

But it was also absolutely exhausting.

I felt like I had to be a certain way, write about certain things and interact with certain people to ensure the blog and social media feeds did well. It was reaching the point where I felt I couldn’t be myself.

I was forever trying to come up with content, only to delete it all because I felt it wasn’t good enough.

I was never off my phone, because I was just trying to keep up with social media, or tweet about blogs, or capture photos or videos I could put on Instagram, but the more time I spent online the worse I felt.

I was constantly comparing myself and my farming journey with others Twitter feeds or Instagram accounts. I couldn’t see how far I had come in such a short time, because all I could see was other people doing so much better than me or how much better their life was, or at least appeared to be through the filtered lense of their iPhones cameras.

It was having a negative impact on my mental health, and it was having a massive effect on my enjoyment of my work and life in farming. It was all just making me feel like shit.

So one day, I just binned it off.

The blog went, I deleted the Facebook page and changed my Twitter and Instagram names. I switched the social media for a social life, throwing myself in to the local rugby club, where I’m now coaching women’s rugby. I’ve spent time exploring with Iona, taking in places from the Scottish Highlands to the South of France.

And once again, I’m really enjoying farming.

The tups are out, and this year we’ll be lambing around 150 ewes in just our third lambing.

We’ve come a hell of a long way from the 16 old ewes we bought back in 2015, and it’s so nice to be able to just sit back and enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

Follow A Farmer: Neil Quinlan

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

Follow A Farmer: Madeleine O’Connell

This week, I’m chatting with a real globe trotter. Maddy is a New Zealand based Aussie, currently working her way around the UK, and she gives a great insight in to the differences in farming here and Down Under.

James: What’s your farming background?

Madeleine: Grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Aus! No one in my family have anything to do with farming, but I was mad about horses so wanted to find a job when I finished school where I’d be paid to ride them for a living. So, I went up to Northern Australia and did 2 years working in a contract mustering gang, the biggest station we were on was 2.6 million acres so it had 2 teams of 13 odd people. All mustered on horseback and choppers and a couple of bikes.

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I worked with a couple kiwis who’s family owned a farm in the bottom of the South Island of NZ, so went down there, found a full time job shepherding for a bloody good family who taught me a lot as I’d never worked with sheep up until then. They run a Hereford stud as well as a Texel and Romney stud and a few Perindales. Worked for them for nearly 3 years and now travelling and working in the UK!

J: Christ! Your first farming job was covering 2.6 million acres? Didn’t it ever occur to start small and work your way up?

M: Um, no not really to be honest! I guess I didn’t know what to expect so just got thrown in the deep end and loved it! It isn’t the size of the paddock or big stock numbers that are a problem because you’ve got such a big team working together to get shit done, it’s the heat up there that gets ya! Big days walking mobs to the yard were tough in 45 + degrees but you acclimatise eventually!

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J: How did you go from wanting to ride horses for a living to moving in to livestock farming?

M: I guess it just kind of naturally formed for me into something I really enjoyed doing; working the cattle on your horse. Once developed some stock sense and also a bit of common sense I knew I found something I wanted to turn into a career! But at that point it was just learning the basics, I didn’t even think of farming as people’s livelihood and business’ back then, and this was only in 2012 so looking back I was pretty bloody naive! And then I got to New Zealand and was introduced to shepherding and dog work, never looked back! My ideal job when I get back home to NZ will be bringing those two worlds together and having my team of dogs and mustering flocks on horseback! That’s the dream anyway.

J: What was the biggest difference farming on the other side of the ditch, and how did you take to shepherding? Sheep aren’t always a bundle of joy to work with!

M: Australia and NZ were worlds apart in terms of farming, and a lot of other things. Where I was working up in North-West Queensland was tough and at the time the area was going through an awful drought as they didn’t have a wet season the year prior. You saw some pretty hard things; cattle being drafted going down in the yards because of the heat and stress, there was a bushfire that burnt 90% of the 50000 acre paddock most of the weaned replacement heifers would be turned out on. I got heat stroke a couple of times. But working up there I learnt a hell of a lot and it toughened me up physically and mentally.

New Zealand was like coming to heaven on earth! I remember flying over the Remarkables into Queenstown with my mouth open thinking ‘holy shit! I’m never leaving here!’ I did casual work for the summer weaning my way around farms in Southland in the South Island, it was awesome! I then got some seasonal work with a conveyor contractor, we’d go to a load of different farms all over the show with a sheep conveyor and do whatever needed doing to them. The best place was at Mt Nicholas Station across the lake from Queenstown; 2 days capsuling 9000 Marino wethers and pissing up afterwards with the station crew by the lake with million dollar views.

To be honest I could live without the sheep some days, my passions in the working dogs and training them to hopefully get them to their potential. I’m only just beginning but people near where I lived in NZ have won national trials with their hunterways and heading dogs and are very willing to teach young novices like myself which is awesome. Being in Wales at the moment, indoor lambing has shown me a whole other side to sheep and shepherding. I’m used to being outdoors and mustering larger fields so it’s all new and a good learning curve.

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J: It must be great to learn from some of the best in NZ. Did you find it difficult to work dogs at first or was it just something you found you had a natural ability at and what is it that you enjoy most about working with dogs?

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M: I consider myself so lucky to have ended up working and living where I do in NZ, the people there are so patient and friendly with novices like myself. They don’t hold back and give you all the tips and advice to help your dogs reach there potential. I started off with a border collie and he was completely useless, I though ‘this is the go! Fluffy dogs get the job done’, couldn’t have been more wrong. He was completely uninterested in sheep but would happily chase a ball all day long. I started working for the Paterson family in Waikaka and they got me set up with a NZ heading bitch. She was already mostly trained so the dog taught me, not the other way around. I definitely don’t have a natural ability to train dogs, but it’s like anything the more you go to trials and see how the pros do it, and (try) to train your dogs every day the better you will get I guess!

I then got a couple hunterways and fell in love; big, loud and full of bouncy energy! Training them is probably what I enjoy most, they’ve got huge personality and are a joy to spend your day with.

J: Working at Waikaka must have been amazing! I’m very jealous I must admit.

M: Working for the Patersons at Waikaka was brilliant, you couldn’t meet kinder people. They had no worries taking on someone who’d never worked with sheep before and taught me everything, from how to crutch a lamb to teaching me how to power harrow and disc up paddocks. I met all of my friends and contacts from the UK through them, as they’re always putting up foreigners like myself who are wanting lambing experience or whatever else. They are so bloody kind and willing to help and teach people their way of farming. They also put up with me for 2 years so I’m forever grateful for that! Life would’ve been very different and I probably wouldn’t be travelling right now learning and gaining heaps of life experiences if it wasn’t for working for them!

J: What do you like most about working with Huntaways?

M: Yeah hunterways are the life of the party! I find collies and heading dogs to be much more serious and down to business, whereas the hunterway just takes life as it comes and if they get to chase sheep and make noise well then thats awesome! I’ve noticed they’re becoming increasingly more popular over here which is great to see! I’ve talked to a couple cockies around here and they’re worried they’d cause unnecessary stress to the stock. But if they’re trained properly I reckon they’re invaluable! Mind you one of my hunterways at home who had too much personality for me to handle may have caused a bit of excess stress to myself and the stock. But the same goes for any dog that isn’t trained properly I suppose!

I guess I just enjoy the breeds temperament the most! Their big, boisterous, happy buggers. But they know how to work, they’ll spend all day in the yards and all night if you’d want them too!

J: Plenty of UK farmers head to NZ to see how things are done but it’s a lot less common for NZers to come the other way. What made you want to experience farming in this neck of the woods?

M: I met a lot of British contacts through where I worked in NZ, and they all welcomed me to come and visit their family farms or just pop in and say G’day! I’m 23 and hadn’t done much travelling so I’d be an idiot not too! I kept putting it off as I have a partner back at home and I didn’t want to sell my dogs, but I don’t and won’t ever regret leaving. I’ve gotten to see and work in parts of every country in Britain, Ireland and a bit of Sweden! I also really wanted to see my heritage, after all us Aussies are all convicts as we’re constantly reminded!

J: What jobs have you done and where? Any favourite places so far?

M: When I first arrived in the UK in August I stayed up in Kinross near Perth with a good friend I met working for the Paterson family. Herself and her father run roughly 1800 ewes on flat to rolling country, very similar to home. She went off to America for a few weeks so I stayed and helped out with weaning. They had a lot of Scottish black faced crosses, I didn’t enjoy being in the race with them and their horns! But it was cool to see how they ran things.

After that I travelled down to Yorkshire and visited another couple of mates, their family own and run a big potato and rapeseed cropping farm so that was awesome to see the huge contrast in country coming down the train from Scotland to England. Then I headed off to Ireland for a couple of weeks and met up with 2 more friends, one owns a wee holding an hour west of Dublin and the other was a kiwi hitched to an Irishman that lives up in Northern Ireland. They were all very kind and let me stay in their homes so I got to travel around Ireland and see some amazing things like Dublin city and the Cliffs of Moher, that was incredible.

 

Sweden was my favourite place I’ve been to so far. I have a really good friend, born and bred there, who I met in Australia when I was jillarooing up north. She was backpacking and we met up at a rodeo and clicked. I went in October which is open season for moose hunting. Her family own a couple of small acres of woods, so they go every year with a group of around 35 to 50 other land owners and hunt. It’s a seriously old and traditional way of hunting. I hunt at home in NZ, it’s a big part of the culture there. I love that it gives you the ability to provide for yourself and you don’t have to depend on anyone else to get quality meat for your home and family.

In an ideal world I’d love to be a contract shepherdess and then be a guide in the hunting season!

Back in Sweden, between the 50 odd landowners, only a small amount of moose are allocated to be allowed to shoot. And it’s illegal to waste any of the animal, everything gets divided between the hunters fairly. It was an incredible experience, especially as it was the first country I’d been to where English wasn’t the first language. I got to be part of an incredible tradition I felt very proud and lucky to be included in it.

I then got to go and work for Peter Eccles in Scotland down at Midlothian for a couple of months, that was awesome. He’s the farm manager and has a super modern and enthusiastic way of looking at farming. Pete and his wife were super nice and I felt very much at home and learned a lot. He’s started implementing some kiwi style electric fencing grazing systems which I gave my 2 cents on but he knows what his doing! It was a great couple of months and I’d love to go back one day.

And now I’m in Wales, which is coming in second with Sweden as my favourite place so far!

J: Flattery will get you everywhere. Sweden sounds incredible. I’ll have to add it to my ever increasing list of places to travel to! What are the biggest differences in farming practices you’ve noticed since arriving in the U.K.?

M: Definitely do, I couldn’t get over it, 1 hour on a plane and you’re in completely different world.

The intensity! Especially working in wales where I am now, 400 odd acres of productive land and 2800 ewes is gonna be intense! But it’s run immaculately and I’ve learnt a lot in the short time I’ve been here. This is my first lambing indoors and it ain’t my cup of tea. I’m more of a ‘let them lamb outside and what will be will be’ kind of girl, obviously that’s not practical or financially sustainable here! But coming from Australia to NZ I thought the same thing, that NZ was really intense and you handled the same stock a lot more; but I eventually learned it’s all relative to size.

Ive also found that because we’ve got the stock numbers back home, it’s not the end of the world if you have a few lamb losses from bad weather etc, obviously it’s less than bloody ideal, but it’s not the be all end all of your year. That’s the biggest difference I’ve found between NZ and Britain, all your energy goes into tubing or adopting every wee lamb so it survives to become a decent ewe or tup. Back home we’ve got the luxury of being a little more careless. I know that sounds terrible but personally I think it’s true. Obviously every farmer wants healthy livestock and happy, plentiful offspring. But in NZ we can kill the old cull ewes or crap store lambs for dog food because they’re worth more like that then being sent to the works, we aren’t charged to take carcasses away and we get money for our dead newborn lambs for skins!

Obviously this is just from my experiences so far and not universal for everyone, I hope to see a lot more and experience more farmers techniques and methods. But New Zealand is where I first experienced and learned about sheep farming and personally it suits me a lot better. Obviously I’m biased!

J: Where’s next?

M: Canada! Flying to Calgary on April 10th to start my next job on a Quarter horse stud breaking in yearlings near the Rockies which I can’t wait for, then myself and my partner are going to the Yukon to work for a hunting outfitters learning how to wrangle and guide!

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J: I was going to ask what 2017 had in store next, but that answers that. So perhaps, what does the future hold for Madeleine O’Connell might be a better question?

M: Who knows! I’m keen to go to uni when I get back to NZ and do a degree in agribusiness, I don’t want to be doing physical work all my life and am keen to get up the ranks on the farming sector! Id love to be a farm manager one day or head stockman, I guess that’s the goal for most shepherds. Managing a high country station on the South Island of NZ would be the ultimate! With a big team of dogs and a couple horses, that’s what I’ll be aiming for, for now. My mind changes pretty regularly to be fair so I really can’t be certain where I’ll be in the future! Definitely somewhere with my dogs, cattle and sheep!

You can follow Maddie’s travels on Twitter, find her @MadeleineOCon14 

Follow A Farmer: James Metcalfe

This week, I’m chatting all things Cheviot with James Metcalfe, a pedigree breeder from Derbyshire. I worked with James last year on a lambing job in Cheshire and we’ve kept in contact ever since.  

I hope you enjoy learning a little more about James’ enterprise and the Cheviot breed! 

James: What’s your farming background?

James Metcalfe: Been brought up on a National Trust hill farm in Edale in the Peak District, 345 acres of various types of grazing, mostly unimproved.

The farm has changed over the years, when I was a small child there was dairying here though I only have a vague memory of it. Since then it has been all sheep, until the last couple of years ,when HLS has seen the introduction of native beef.

My grandfather farmed a flock of Swales on the hill and Masham ewes on the lowland, breeding his own replacements, but since my Dad took over the farm has been run with a flock of Mules with bought in replacements. We are in a transitional period at the moment between the next generational swap, and for the last 6 years I have been building up my own flock with the aim of taking over. My passion is North Country Cheviots.

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I have a registered flock which, with next years replacements taken into account, stands at 90 females. I love my sheep and keep several other breeds as well. My background is very traditional, but I am keen to experiment, having tried both sponging for early lambing and also AI in the last couple of years, something previous generations of this family wouldn’t have even dared to try.

J: As a farmers son, did you always want to farm?

JM: Yes, nothing else I have wanted to do but farm sheep! Though, I did spend some of my early 20s trying to convince myself I didn’t and tried other things but the call was too strong.

J: What kind of other things did you turn your hand to?

JM: I had about 3 years landscaping and a couple of years scaffolding, didn’t go so well as I don’t like heights, still came home at weekends to help with the big jobs and took my holidays at lambing.

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J: What made you opt for a flock of pedigree NCC? Derbyshire isn’t really traditional Cheviot country.

JM: No it’s not! It was a bit by luck really. When my Dad finally relented and let me have a few acres to get my teeth into, I was looking at what breed to have and a flock of pedigree NCC was being dispersed nearby in Macclesfield. So, I decided to take a bit of a punt having been to see them. At the time I thought, like many folk, that the Cheviot was a small sheep, my only real experience of Cheviots was seeing the South Countrys, but having seen Park Type Northies in the flesh, and seeing the size and power I never wanted anything else. Luckier still, I was first to contact them and managed to get first pick of the ewes! I came away with 7 ewes to found the Greenhills flock, I didn’t have a great amount of knowledge of the NCC at the time, but managed to get into what is probably the fastest growing sheep breed in the UK at the moment at just the right time.

J: For those who may not know much about the NCC can you give a basic intro to the breed and the differences between the different types?

JM: There are essentially 3 types of Cheviot; North Country, South Country and Brecknock Hill Cheviots. The South and the Brecknock are fairly small, tough mountain sheep, with the South Country mainly found in the Borders between England and Scotland and the Brecknock pretty much exclusively on the Brecon Beacons.

The North Country is a slightly more diverse breed, there is the hill or Lairg type, which again is a small tough sheep suited to the heather hill, though slightly larger than the other two hill types.

Then there is the Park type Northies. They split again into two distinct types, Caithness and Border type. The Park ewe is the largest hill breed in the UK, and not well suited to the very top of the hill, but does well in the margins and if put on good pasture will do as well as any lowland ewe. My Park types have scanned 189.4% this year. The Caithness type is heavier boned than the border type, though both are registered as the same type in the flock book.

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In my own flock, I like to infuse both types and have a heavier boned ewe that’s not too extreme.

Northies are one of the best mothering breeds I have worked with, I was extremely surprised just how much milk they had! They produce lambs with tremendous carcass that get to heavy weights without much pushing, they can be deceptive when you think your looking at a 35kg lamb and stick it on the scales to find out its 50kg! Northies are growing in popularity and there are now over 80 registered flocks in England and 50 in Wales.

J: What are your ambitions for the Greenhills flock?

JM: To do the best I possibly can, the sky is the limit really! I will keep trying to improve my bloodlines and the quality of the flock, it’s still in its infancy at the moment ,with ewes bought in from several flocks. There is a lot of inconsistency in them at the moment. First thing to do is to get them evened up and how I want them. I want to build on what we have achieved in the show ring, so far we have done well at local level, winning a few red rosettes, but with time I would like to compete at a higher level and maybe take sheep to show in Scotland. Ultimately, I would like to be well known as a breeder of high quality Cheviots but that will take time and hard work. I guess if you don’t set your goals high then you don’t have a lot to strive for.

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Breed Champion at Mottram’s first ever NCC class.

J: It’d be great to see you at the Highland! What does 2017 have in store for you and the flock?

JM: Not the Highland yet, but that is an aim one day! 2017, well as they say you never know in farming! Lambing is just round the corner, then we will be in to the showing season, we have Leek in July, then Sykehouse, Ashover, Mottram and the English National at Hope in August, finishing at Hayfield in September. It shows the progress of the breed. 3 or 4 years agom I would have been competing in the any other breed class, now Hope, Mottram and Hayfield all have NCC classes in their own right. I’ll be looking forward to getting into my new role on the society council, then to the ram sales in the autumn! Hopefully, we will have something decent to take this year. We did some AI work in Autumn 2015 using semen from a very good tup. The progeny of that will be at some of the society sales and I am excited to see how they will do.

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You can keep up to date with the Greenhills pedigree flock on Facebook . If you’d like to find out more about the breed, you can visit the North Country Cheviot society website, or why not go and see the some of the breed’s finest (including the Greenhills flock) in action at the National Show, taking place at Hope Show, Derbyshire on August 28th. 

Follow A Farmer: Sophie Green

After a week off (due to preparing for lambing), I’m back with a brand new #FollowAFarmer interview. This week I’m discovering the challenges of balancing a working farm and an educational tourist attraction with fellow previous Tesco Future Farmer, Sophie Green. 

JB: What’s your farming background?

SG: I’m not from a farming background – I originally qualified as a teacher and got into farming when I accepted a job as Learning Officer at Stockley Farm Park back in 2012.

J: How did the job at Stockley come about? Not many people go from teaching to farming!

S: You’d be surprised! More and more people are coming into agriculture from other industries, which seems to be creating a more dynamic approach to farming; much-needed in the current political climate. Personally, I’ve always loved being outdoors and as a qualified horse riding instructor, I’m well used to shoveling muck & braving all weathers.

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I’ve always championed learning outside of the classroom & the opportunity to inspire children to explore & learn out in the countryside is very liberating. Every good teacher knows that to enable your students to engage in high quality learning experiences, you have to continually develop your own knowledge & experiences; as i have discovered more about farming & the agricultural industry as a whole I have become completely engrossed!

After three years of working in an inner city school in Manchester I was craving the opportunity to get back out into the countryside & to take the kids with me! When I saw the job at Stockley advertised in the local paper, I couldn’t resist! I am happy to say that pupils from my old school now come to the farm to take part in educational visits. I love seeing them relax, enjoy & explore – seeing them interact with the animals & get ‘hands on’ in a working farm environment always brings a smile to my,and their, face.
J: How much of a transition was it going in to Stockley? Did you have any prior farming knowledge and how much have you had to learn along the way?
S: The past 4 years have certainly been an education! I had basic animal husbandry knowledge, but I’ve had to do my research & have thrown myself into every aspect of farm life in order to gain a real understanding of what it is to be a modern-day farmer. I don’t believe in doing things by halves & know that you need a strong subject knowledge in order to be an effective teacher.
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Thankfully John (farm owner), our agronomist, vets, contractors etc have all been very patient with me & put up with my continual questions! The past 18 months have been particularly full-on in terms of learning about the industry as a whole, as I gained a place on the Tesco Future Farmers Foundation 2015 & won a scholarship to attend the Oxford Farming Conference 2017. Both of these opportunities have really opened my eyes to the global farming industry and have enabled me to share its story with all of our visitors.
J: Going back to Stockley. Could you give the readers a little intro in to the business?
S: Stockley is a 750 acre mixed organic dairy and arable farm, which has diversified to incorporate an open farm visitor attraction. It is on the Arley Hall Estate in Cheshire and is tenanted by the Walton family, who set up the attraction 30 years ago. The business has a focus upon educating visitors about British Farming by providing them with ‘hands on’ interactive activities that allow them to get a real sense of life on a working farm. The open farm attracts 75,000 visitors per year, 25,000 of which are students attending educational visits. We take pride in showcasing what we do and why we do it; providing consumers with the opportunity to ask questions & gain a better understanding of where their food comes from. Our approach has resulted in numerous awards, including ‘Best Farm Over 500 Acres’ in the Cheshire Farms Competition 2015 and most recently ‘Best in Education’ at the National Farm Attractions Network Awards 2017. To gain recognition for both our farming practices & our ability to showcase them is wonderful!
J: We’re all forever banging on about how important it is that we showcase what we do and inform or educate the public on food and farming, and that’s exactly what you’re doing day in, day out. How important a role do you think places like Stockley play in bringing the farmer and the consumer closer together?
S: I think they are vital! Like yourself, I hear so many farmers saying that they want to engage with consumers, but the thought of opening their farm up to the public is very daunting. Initiatives such as Open Farm Sunday are doing a fantastic job of supporting farmers who want to give it go & I fully advocate getting involved! Health and safety & insurance costs are what most farmers fear, but there is plenty of support and advice from the OFS team, plus Access to Farms & the National Farm Attractions Network. Consumers are becoming more aware of issues such as food provenance, and environmental issues surrounding farming – there is a thirst for knowledge out there! People like Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty are bringing these issues into the mainstream, so now more than ever, the British farming industry needs to tell its story and show people exactly why it is one of the best in the world!
J: You’ve touched on a couple of issues that farmers face when opening up to the public but what are some of the biggest challenges you face at Stockley?
S: Running a working farm as a visitor attraction can be challenging. However, with a bit of positive thinking, every hurdle can be turned into an opportunity. We do encourage visitors to watch our animals give birth, but we’ve all had an awkward calving or lambing. If things aren’t going quite to plan, we explain the situation and move customers away from the area. However, we do not hide anything; we are open & honest with our visitors & encourage questions about topics that could be considered slightly ‘sticky’. We have talked many a child through the process of birth, using child-friendly language, and often get questions about the process of slaughtering animals & how we feel about it.
It is a highly emotive subject, but we stick to the facts & explain things as simply as possible. This is the most important part of our job; these processes are so often misunderstood & misrepresented through social media channels, so it’s essential that consumers have the opportunity to explore & understand then for themselves. It’s important to note that we try to approach these subjects on a factual basis, without expressing personal opinion, so that our visitors have the opportunity to make up their own minds.
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J: The job must come with some real highlights too?
S: Absolutely! The joy of this job is the activities we provide can be accessed by everyone, regardless of age, ability or background. It is very rewarding to see the impact it can have; I’ve witnessed a 90 yr old lady with dementia in tears of joy as she remembered milking dairy cows at home as a young girl, teenagers with learning difficulties begin to grow in confidence & independence as they cared for our animals, & children educating their parents about farming after they’ve been on a school visit! From technical farming debates to the simple pleasure of spending time with the animals, every day is a highlight!
J: You mentioned earlier that 2016 has been such a big year for you, with the OFC and taking part of TFFF where we met. What does 2017 have in story for Sophie Green?
S: 2017 brings lots of hard work, grit & determination! I have been afforded some fantastic opportunities & I am keen to utilise all I have learnt. There are number of exciting ideas that I am hoping to develop within my current role and I am also keen to explore the possibilities of working on a bigger scale. I would love to support the industry on a regional, or potentially national level, with the aim of educating consumers & inspiring more people to get into farming… watch this space!
To learn more about Stockley Farm Park, or to plan your own visit, head over to their website; www.stockleyfarm.co.uk !
You can also find them on social media, @StockleyFarmPk on Twitter, and on Facebook @stockley.farmpark 

Got (local) Milk?

Like most farmers, I’m very keen on supporting and promoting the industry by ensuring I buy as much British, and wherever possible, local produce as I can. As a meat producer myself, I’m well aware of the difference in quality and the level of care that goes in to putting that beef, pork, lamb and poultry on the supermarket shelves and wouldn’t dream of putting anything that wasn’t British in my shopping basket, regardless of the difference in price. However, having just finished watching Gareth Wyn Jones Milk Man on the BBC, I’ve realised I don’t always give the white stuff the same treatment.

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Gareth’s show did a great job of highlighting the struggles and issues facing dairy farming families throughout Wales (struggles that will, sadly, be all too familiar to dairy farmers throughout the rest of the UK) and how they are all finding different ways to try and turn around their fortunes to ensure that the business not only survives in the present, but is there for the future generations too. It also made me realise just how much of a throwaway purchase it had become in our household as well.

Milk is a staple of many a fridge up and down the country. We use it every day, and would undoubtedly be lost without it, yet it has become so easy to grab a pint for a few pennies and throw it in the trolley without a thought.

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Milk Man showed how some farmers have decided to cut out the middle man and brand, bottle and sell their own milk direct to the public, and we’re very lucky that we have a 6th generation dairy farm, Roan’s Dairy, doing just that right here in Dumfries and Galloway. We’ve been harping on for months about making sure to start buying our milk from them, they even stock it in our local bakers, yet because of the convenience of the supermarket, we’ve just never followed through on our promise.

Today,  that changed. Rather than pop in to the supermarket while out getting sheep supplies at Tarff, I made the conscious effort to go out of my way to put my money where my mouth is and buy four pints of Roan’s milk at the bakery. If we all made that one small change to our routine, we could make a massive difference to dairy farmers across the country.

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So let’s all join Gareth in raising a pint to the hard working dairy farmers of the UK, struggling against the odds to keep milk on the shelves and, maybe, all do our bit to help them through the tough times.

If you don’t have BBC Wales, or just missed the show, you can catch the whole Milk Man series on BBC iPlayer.

If you are interested in supporting the dairy industry through doorstep delivery, you can find your local milkman with the handy FindMeAMilkman site from DairyUK. 

Follow A Farmer: Will Evans

This week I’m chatting with the first Welshman of the series,  Will Evans. Not content with farming, my compatriot keeps himself busy looking after his 4 daughters, running marathons, writing blogs and being an amateur historian. 

I hope you enjoy our chat. 

James: What’s your farming background?

Will Evans: I was born into a farming family. My Father’s family have farmed in the Wrexham area at least as far back as the early 1700s so I suppose I’m carrying on a long tradition. I left school at 15, & apart from 3 years away studying agriculture at Harper Adams, I’ve been working on the family farm ever since. It’s all I ever wanted to do.

J: So you’ve been farming the fields of North Wales since you were a boy. Did you ever want to do anything other than farm?

W: No not really. I’ve lots of other interests, and at one point I looked into joining the army, but ultimately I think I was always going to come home to the farm. I had an incredibly happy childhood growing up here, every day was an adventure, & I knew from an early age that one day I wanted my own children growing up on a farm too. And now I’ve got 4 of the little buggers running about!

J: Can you give us an insight in to your farming enterprise?

W: We farm near the village of Bangor is y Coed, just 5 or 6 miles from the English border. We farm just over 500 acres, & grow cereals, maize, beans, & grass on good sandy clay loam soils. The river Dee runs through the middle of the two main blocks of land, so it’s very fertile. We also have 330 dairy x beef cattle which we buy as calves & fatten. We’re pretty busy with them at this time of year. We have 5000 free range laying hens too. They’re Burford Browns & Old Cotswold Legbars & we supply a firm called Clarence Court. You can find them in Sainsbury’s & Waitrose. Dead posh eggs see.. We also have a contract baling business that keeps me out of mischief during the summer. All in all it’s fairly non stop!

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J: You’ve a nice, diverse farming enterprise there Will! Is this the way the family has always farmed or are the hens and calves more recent editions?

W: No, we were dairy until ’08 when we took the monumental decision to sell the cows. It was due to a number of factors, we felt like we needed to increase cow numbers significantly, and the cost of this along with bigger parlour, slurry storage, housing etc just wasn’t stacking up for us on a rented farm. At the time we were getting a very low price for the milk, and were treated appallingly by our buyer – let’s call them ‘Feadow Moods’ – and we’d just had enough. We decided after much soul-searching to go in a different direction and increased our cereal production and beef enterprise, and converted half of the cubicle building into a free range layer shed, despite knowing next to nowt about hens! It’s been a hell of a steep learning curve with them, but it’s certainly been interesting. We miss the Cows, and breeding our own stock, but ultimately it was the right thing for us to do as a family, and it’s worked out pretty well. We certainly have no regrets anyway..

J: Do you think there’s still a future for smaller, family dairy farms or is milking on a large-scale the way things will have to go?

W: Yes I think there is, though it may depend somewhat on what happens with Brexit. I worry about tenants, especially if support payments are removed. But there are many fantastic smaller businesses that I have no doubt will thrive in the coming years.

J: It must have been one hell of a  decision to make, to come out of dairy. How do you even begin to go about totally changing your farming enterprise?

W: With many sleepless nights first! We knew we had scope to increase the arable and beef sides of the business, and we’ve invested quite a lot steadily in new buildings & facilities since the change. I think we’ve got a good set-up & system in place now. None of us had any experience with laying hens previously, but we did a lot of research before we took the plunge. We were fortunate that we were able to convert a cow cubicle building into a laying shed relatively easily. And even though 5000 birds is a pretty small flock these days, it’s worked well for us as part of the overall business.

Plus with the hens we’re paid weekly for eggs, which is obviously an enormous help with cash flow when we’re not selling cattle or grain.

J: You mentioned your eggs go to Clarence Court, who are one of the fancier egg brands, selling everything from traditional breeds to quail, geese and even Ostrich! What breed of hen are you working with and how did supplying them come about?

W: They’re a mixed flock of Old Cotswold Legbars & Burford Browns, with the Legbar’s laying pale blue coloured eggs, & the Burford’s laying chocolatey brown coloured eggs. They like their suppliers to be from family farms, with smaller sized flocks so it very much suited our system. We got a contract with them when we started as it appealed to us to go down the niche market route, rather than the standard brown egg market which really suits larger scale operations. The added bonus for us is that we have premium eggs right here & I have them for breakfast pretty much every morning!

J: How have you been affected by the current avian flu outbreak?

W: We’ve obviously had to keep the birds indoors since the control order came in, though in terms of egg numbers etc it hasn’t really affected them. It’s required a bit more work in terms of giving them something to do inside – making sure the scratch area is well maintained so they can dust bathe etc – if they get bored it can lead to aggression, but we haven’t seen any of that here. We’re all very worried in the industry that the housing order will be extended beyond the end of February, and our eggs will no longer be able to be sold as free range. If they’re downgraded in the stores to barn eggs, it’s going to mean a huge price drop.

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J: I’m a total newbie when it comes to Arable farming. Could you give an idiots guide intro to your arable set up?

W: Ok, well we grow about 300 acres of crops including Winter Wheat, Winter Barley, Spring Barley, Maize, and sometimes OSR & Winter Beans. The rest of the farm is down to grass, which is in the rotation as well. We farm two main blocks of land which are very flat, and the River Dee cuts between the two. The soil’s a good sandy clay loam, with very few stones. Much of the farm is land that was a flood plain for centuries, then had a bulwark built around the river during WW1 when food was scarce, so it’s very fertile. As long as you farm it well, and put plenty back in, it’ll grow anything. We’re lucky to have it.

J: What does your average arable year look like?

W: We put cattle & hen muck, plus sewage sludge onto the stubble fields after harvest, before sowing our Winter crops (barley/wheat/OSR) in Sept/Oct. We then sow our Spring barley in early March, depending on weather conditions, and Maize in late April/ early May, again depending on weather & soil temperature. We start harvesting generally in mid July with Winter Barley, then move into Winter Wheat & Spring Barley in August. We also have a contract baling business, so as well as trying to get all our straw baled, I’m generally pretty busy in the Summer trying to keep baling customers happy too. Luckily, as everyone knows, farmers are very cheerful, patient & accommodating! ;-/ We then harvest maize in late Sept/ early Oct, usually when we’re trying to sow the following year’s cereal crops. All sounds very simple doesn’t it!?

J: And what happens to the crops once they’re harvested?

W: We sell quite a lot of the cereals into the grain market, with much of it sold as much as 12 months in advance on contract. Though we try to be flexible, and use as much as we can ourselves to feed our beef cattle, especially when it’s been very cheap over the last few years. We also roll and sell some for neighbours and local farmers, which we deliver to them or they collect themselves. In short, we’re trying to add a bit of value to the product. We sell all the wheat straw after it’s baled to dairy farming neighbours, and keep all the Barley straw for our own cattle. As you can see, it’s very much a mixed farm. And generally the system works quite well for us…

J: You’ve diversified once more recently in to the world of writing. How did the idea of doing a blog come about?

W: Ok, I’ll try to explain it honestly. I had a pretty tough time in school. I didn’t really fit in & there were a few guys who made my life pretty miserable while I was there. I did have friends there, mostly other farm lads, & they’re still good friends now, but mostly it was shit & I couldn’t wait to leave, so I did at 15.

But, the only things I was good at were English & History, & my love for these subjects carried on. I had one really great English teacher who encouraged me a lot with writing, and my Grandmother was very literary & recognised it in me too, & constantly recommended books, poetry etc & quizzed me after I’d read them, for her whole life.

Believe it or not, but we once had a very heated discussion on who was the better First World War poet, Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke!

Anyway, my point is that the writing spark has always been there, and although the pull of the family farm probably would’ve won in the end anyway, I’ve always wondered what if? It may sound silly, I don’t know. So I’m not sure where the whole blog thing is going, & I’m racked with insecurities about it, but so far I’m really enjoying it & I’m glad I’ve started writing a bit again. 20 years too late maybe but got there in the end!

I’ve genuinely been blown away by the lovely comments I’ve had about some of my posts, I wasn’t expecting anything like that at all. But I’m conscious that I’m only a beginner, I read so many other great blogs, so I know I’ve got a long way to go.

J: You’re being very humble about your blog. It has been absolutely fantastic and all the comments and praise you’ve received is well deserved. How do you decide on what topic you’re going to write about?

W: I generally just write about what’s on my mind at the time. I’d like it to be a bit more structured, but with the farm & young family it’s enough at the moment just to be doing it at all! I make notes of ideas, thoughts etc. I have two or three that I’m working on at the moment, drafts anyway. But other than that, I’ve got no plan & no idea where it’ll go. Mostly it just comes out as one big splurge of writing, then I go through it for a few days & try to correct the many, many grammatical errors!

J: Do you have any goals or aspirations for your writing?

W: I’d like to get more people reading my blog, and post more regularly if I can. I guess the best way of doing that is to improve the quality of the content so there’s that. I’ve done a few magazine pieces that I’ve really enjoyed, and actually got paid for one recently. Which is the first £ I’ve ever earned as an adult that wasn’t from farming, so that was pretty cool! So yes, I’d like to do more if I can. I’d like to write some kind of historical fiction, though Christ knows how I’ll ever find the time. Which funnily enough though was the subject of one of my recent blog posts! Where I said that if you really wanted to do something enough, you just find the time. So who knows, maybe I will one of these days…

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J: Finally, what does 2017 have in store for Will Evans?

W: In the short-term I’m hoping a raging hangover is in store for Sunday after wildly celebrating a Welsh win over England in Cardiff. And also that my beautiful English rose Wife is still speaking to me! Also I’m hoping that I survive the marathon I’m doing at the start of April that I’m woefully under prepared for, and I can continue to improve my blog posts. Other than that, a stress-free & profitable farming year , plenty of time with my Wife & Kids, & continued good health & happiness hopefully!

If you’ve enjoyed my chat with Will you can follow him on Twitter: @willpenrievans

You can also keep up to date with his fantastic blog at www.fatherandfarmer.com or on his Facebook page