Getting the right mindset
Very few people like change, especially when it is forced upon them. But accepting and even embracing change is going to be essential for sheep farming businesses that want to survive for the future. Getting the right mindset is the first step in turning problems into opportunities and is a common factor in farm businesses that are moving towards being more sustainable, as it allows thoughts to be turned into actions.
Paul Renison, Cumbria, England
When we first moved to Cannerheugh Farm, Renwick, in 2012, we carried on farming as we had been previously. I had been managing a traditional fell farm in the Lake District and, for the first 18 months or so, even though we were now farming in our own right, I was still in the old mindset.
But farming with borrowed money focuses the mind and makes you question the return from every penny. We wanted our business to not only survive but thrive and, in order to do this, change needed to happen.
We recognised we needed to find a way of farming that reduced our outputs and went to visit to a farm in Northumberland that made me (and a couple of neighbours I went with) start to question our way of farming. I would say spending time on other farms is really important. We have gained a lot from visiting people who are well ahead of us on a similar journey, as well as going to conferences and speaking to like-minded folk. Being part of a discussion group and sharing our costs and ideas has been important to us too. And books; I’ve read a lot about grass and soil!
The farm I used to manage meant I came to Cannerheugh focused on a stratified system that I look back on as being very complicated. It had high inputs of feed and fertiliser – but my change of mindset has been to choose to focus on the bottom line.
That visit to Angus and Duncan Nelless in Northumberland opened my eyes to this. They had large mobs of sheep and were rotating them around with electric fences. It was all about managing grass, which then enables inputs to be reduced.
Seeing an existing system set up on a farm is great. The trickier part is going home and trying to do it in your own fields. Nevertheless, we cracked on with a certain amount of trial and error. Electric fences were part of the story, but getting water around our rotation was another hill to climb. Luckily as we are on a hill, so gravity has helped hugely with this. As well as being determined to make sure the change wasn’t a half-hearted attempt but a real shot at something different.
Over the last five years we have also simplified our breeding, opting for a self-replacing white-faced flock (a mix of Aberfield and Lleyns). We’ve also chosen to adopt much of the advice given by Trevor Cook, a New Zealand grassland consultant who advocates a golden 20-day grazing regime. That has worked well for us, as well as having a mix of sheep and cattle to maximising our outputs.
In the future, avoiding monocultures and embracing low cost, forage-based systems is, in my opinion, the path to follow – but different things might work for different people. I guess the first step is a willingness to look at what you’re doing and not dismiss the idea that change might be a good thing.
More information on getting the right mindset:
- New Zealand farmer Doug Avery on ‘practical experience of change and developing resilience’
- Nuffield Scholar Andrew Gage on ‘failure to prepare is preparation for failure’
- Nuffield Scholar Jude McCann on ‘protecting resilience and knowledge transfer’
- Farming Community Network’s Farmwell resource on business resilience
- Farming Community Network’s pastoral and practical support
- Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution’s support for farming families
- Samaritans’ advice on signs you may be struggling to cope
- Technical paper: ‘To change or not to change? Veterinarian and farmer perceptions of relational factors influencing the enactment of veterinary advice on dairy farms in the UK’
- Technical paper: ‘Achieving on-farm practice change through facilitated group learning: Evaluation the effectiveness of monitor farms and discussion groups’
Enjoy in the comfort of your own home or listen-on-the-go as Heather Wildman talks about attitudes towards change within agricultural. Heather runs the Scottish-based Saviour Associates, specialising in providing agri-businesses with unbiased advice, coaching and mentoring.