Where did it all start?

By Jane Hulton-Harrop

So, where did it all start? We knew that things had to change and that we had to change them.

No use looking backwards to the living we used to make from our upland sheep and beef enterprise, the world was changing and we needed to be looking forwards to new systems, new ideas of caring for livestock and our land with an eye on climate change and the future of the planet.

A change of mindset was what was required and after much research and reading, we decided to enrol on a 9-day Holistic Management training course. It changed our lives.

Holistic Management gave us not a prescriptive answer but a framework within which we could plan our future according to our needs and values.

You could call it something of a light bulb moment. When with the responsibility of managing the land combined with the global catastrophe of climate change and the environmental issues that we knew we should be addressing all came together. It became obvious that we needed to change the way we farmed our land and made our living.

Looking back, we were always aware that our fields were not as ‘tidy’ as the neighbours but guessed that being untraditional farmers explained some of that. We did however follow the trends of draining, reseeding and spraying to try to improve what we saw as the productivity of our land; more grass and heavier crops of silage to feed yet more stock and improve turnover.

In this ‘change in mindset’ I began to take on board ‘the whole picture’, How had I not seen it before?

It was not an idyllic arcadia that we were looking for, it was a way of making a living within different boundaries. Finding a margin which would enable us to live and farm without fighting our environment but working with it. Inputs that we had always seen as necessary to maintain good grassland were now being shown to be unnecessary provided the stock and management system was sympathetic to the character of the land.

Sometimes our habits change because circumstances around us change.

For example, when Autumn sales of breeding sheep were cancelled due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak, we had to find another source of ewe replacements. I found a reasonably close farmer who had ewe lambs of the breed required which we could buy ‘on farm’. I visited the farm and had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon running available ewe lambs by, exchanging observations about farming, the world and everything and reaching a price required and price prepared to pay. The farmer agreed to deliver the purchased stock in his lorry and the deal was done. I never bought stock in the markets again. Buying ‘farm to farm’ was definitely for me!

So an annual traditional sortie came to an end. In fact, the day had always been pretty overrated for me. I would walk around the pens and make a note of which sheep I liked the look of but when they ran into the ring they made big money, beyond our budget so I ended up buying pens of lambs at the right price to make up our numbers. Sometimes I was under extra pressure as I had to be back in time to pick up the children from school having first ensured that my loyal lorry driver had been able to load my purchases. There was one year in particular, I remember, that once I had my new purchases close under my eye back home in the shed, I was not pleased with them. Somehow they didn’t look cared for, their ear tags were poorly inserted and infected. I was cross with myself. One needs to love one’s breeding ewes, they will be your friends for some 9 years or so. I recovered from the disappointing stock but I never made that mistake again.

While I never bought stock from the market again, when ‘normal service resumed’, taking stock to a market to sell was always an option. This was often considered to be a day out for farmers. A chance to meet up with friends and to follow first-hand the trends of the market. Smart jacket and boots were often the dress although some muddy bodywarmers and wellies were also okay. The chance of a bacon sandwich and coffee after an early start was very acceptable especially when the sale had been made.

Now, I see again circumstances changing and feel that I need to respond to those changes.

After considerable research, reading and attendance at various courses we chose a particular breed of cattle which we thought could thrive in our upland landscape outside 12 months of the year. This immediately removes the expense of housing over winter with the bedding costs and conservation feed. Not to mention the time spent feeding and bedding down. Adjusting our stocking rate to a 12-month paddock grazing system and an excitement about rearing grass-fed beef along with the regeneration of our soil was a prospect we could hardly wait to monitor.

On the principle of not having all one’s eggs in the same basket, we had long been developing different income streams. Farming has always been a fluctuating business where relying solely on income from the sale of livestock is a huge risk. Instead of keeping more animals which would potentially make us more money, we decided to sell some land to raise capital that we could reinvest in other projects. Hence when the moment arrived to change direction, we found ourselves in a position to be able to ‘rest’ our ground and forego grass keep income for a while. We spent little, keeping our outgoings to a minimum and investing money from other income streams, such as the holiday cottage and Venue lettings, into the business.

We applied for grants to improve the infrastructure of the farm and drew up our ‘Holistic Planned Grazing Chart.’ By the end of October, we had electric fencing at the ready to create paddocks and were ready to receive the Aberdeen Angus cows and calves we had bought earlier in the year.

Exciting times ahead!