Case Study: James Davison

1st March 2014

This article, about James Davison of Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, first appeared in the March/April 2014 edition of Sheep Farmer magazine. James (20) is the youngest person to be selected for the 2014 NSA Next Generation Ambassador Group and is a ‘re-starter’ rather than a ‘new starter’, having established a sheep enterprise from scratch after his father exited the dairy sector nearly a decade ago.

Our family farm is situated above Glenarm village at the top of Glenarm Glen, the first of the Glens of Antrim. This is in the east coast of County Antrim and was one of the worst hit areas with the late snow last spring – we’re all hoping that will remain a distant memory!

Growing up on a dairy farm I always had a keen interest in farming, but after my father left the industry when I was 12 the ground was let. When I left school I was very keen to take the ground back, to farm it myself. I always had a keen interest in sheep and sheep farming, and with the low start-up cost, it was a simple decision – sheep farming was for me. It also fits in well, as I work full-time on a local dairy farm.

February housing

With the last of my 150 ewes housed during the first week of February and udders starting to show on them, it brings the anticipation of spring, especially with a relatively mild winter so far. I have had most of the fields around the yard shut off since the first week of December so it’s looking like there should be a nice bite of grass for the ewes and lambs to be turned out onto in early March when they start to lamb.

I’ve been sheep farming in my own right now for four years and since the beginning I’ve always used Belclare rams. I started off using them on cast Blackface ewes, which I sourced privately from a local farmer. These made an ideal starter flock, as during the first lambing the blackface ewes had more experience and probably knew more about what was happening than I did! Their cross-bred Belclare daughters are lambing down as three year olds with their second crop of lambs this year.

To date they have performed very well with a scanning percentage of 175% this year. My aim is to scan at 185-190% within the next two years. For me it is kilos of lamb sold per ewe that is the important figure, but I think scanning percentage is a good place to start to achieve this. The ewes have done their part and I suppose it is now up to me to keep as many alive to sale time as possible.

Hybrid vigour

I decided to introduce New Zealand Texel blood into my ewes to try and benefit from hybrid vigour and improve the carcase of my lambs whilst maintaining mothering ability. I use a NZ Suftex (75% Suffolk 25% Texel) as a terminal sire for its easy lambing traits and ability to thrive well from grass. This is essential, as I aim to have all lambs, except replacements, finished off grass and off the farm by the beginning of September. The farm is all permanent pasture laid out in manageable sized fields which are well fenced. This is a great help in my aim of good grazing management. I think that as sheep farmers we have a lot to learn about growing and utilising grass from our dairy farming neighbours.

Looking onwards and upwards, my plan is to increase my flock over the next five years to obtain a full-time wage from the farm. I plan to breed my own ewes to increase the flock size. This means I will know exactly what I’m working with. I select my replacement breeding stock using the Hillsborough performance recording scheme. This gives me an index for all my ewe lambs and lets me select the lambs with the specific traits I’m looking for. It also gives me an index on all the ewes, based on how they performed at lambing time and the weaning weights of the lambs. This helps me identify the best performing ewes to breed my replacements from, and the poorer performing ewes can be crossed to a terminal sire. Longer term I intend to cull the underperforming ewes, but at the moment I am focussing on trying to build up flock numbers.

Bright future

I think the sheep industry has such a bright future in the UK and is an excellent industry for young people like myself with a keen interest in farming to get into. As the New Zealand-style share farming also becomes a more popular topic within the sheep sector, this could help with the biggest problem facing anyone trying to enter the sheep sector – land availability! An open-minded forward-thinking approach to share farming and long term contracts on rented ground would give young sheep farmers stability and allow them to set clear aims for the future, with a realistic chance of achieving them.