Blog: Jonny Farmer
31st December 2015
Jonny Farmer (33) is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador 2015 from Ballymena, County Antrim. Splitting his time between farming, contract shearing and landscape gardening means Jonny is never short of work, but his passion is for sheep and he is constantly on the look-out for land and opportunities to made a living solely from his flock. He rents sufficient land for 130-head currently and also has a contract with a local farmer to rear 100 Lleyn ewe lambs. This contract allows Jonny to tup the females and keep the resulting lambs, as long as he returns the Lleyns to the farmer in good enough condition to go to the tup again. Through this and other expansion plans, Jonny hopes to get to 700+ ewes in the future. This will involve a keen focus on breeding, management and good grassland, he says.
Scroll down for entries from Jonny about his farming year in 2015.
The start of a New Year is sometimes the catalyst we need to keep momentum in our current business ventures and to encourage us to start into new areas. No better time to get working on the 'Learn to lamb' lambing experience that we are holding in April. The website, Facebook page and flyers will hopefully have the candidates queuing up!
The majority of the sheep flock were away on winter keep and were moved every few days and back fenced. This allowed all sheep to be moved off lambing fields to build up covers of grass for lambing in April. Concentrate feeding began for the contract ewe lambs in early February to get them accustomed to hard feed. They have since been scanned and housed on straw for a month before lambing.
Mid-February was my first session as an NSA Next Generation Ambassador and it definitely didn’t disappoint! An intense three days focussing on genetics, body condition scoring, sheep health and grass management. The trip included an excellent farm visit to a 3,000-ewe flock and a day at Barenbrug UK. One of the most memorable parts of this session was hearing the passion and drive of the other 11 Ambassadors. This was very refreshing and showed the high quality of young men and women working in the sheep sector. Each Ambassador had different experiences and goals but shared the same determination and self-belief. I’m really looking forward to our next session, and by that stage hopefully we will have lots of lambs and lots of grass.
My landscaping business has started to get busy too with a lot of new customers, which is a good indicator of a continued shift in the economy and more business in the coming year.
Since the last time of writing, the workload has definitely shifted up a few notches! Landscaping and lambing have left few days off work.
Single bearing ewe lambs and all ewes were turned out onto grass in March and lambing started on 6th April. The weather was very kind with a few heavy frosts but limited rain. This meant the majority of ewes lambing outside stayed outside post lambing, and ewe lambs with twins were turned out promptly. Lambing generally went well.
We also had the launch of two new business ventures – ‘Learn to Lamb’ saw eight visitors come to the farm and get involved in the full lambing experience over the lambing period. Feedback was very positive and we hope this is the start of something we can build on next year. As well as this my wife Gill launched ‘Learn with Lambs’. This business is taking lambs to local primary schools and nurseries. Gill tailored a lesson as well as crafts and games, all specific to sheep and lambs, as well as a certificate for each child. The kids loved it and we already have bookings for next year. My wife and I are very passionate about the business and believe kids should know where their food and other products come from.
Having all lambs on the ground now, the attention has focused to grass management and medical treatments. The majority of land has received compound fertiliser and grass has responded. I am still feeding ewe lambs rearing twins and have just started creep feeding their lambs. All other groups are on grass only. The jury is out on whether to dose for coccidiosis and when to do it. My local veterinary practice has been very helpful and we are building a thorough health plan as the season progresses.
Early signs of lamb prices in NI have not been favourable so it will be very important to keep lambs growing as fast as possible of grass and keep costs down. I hope to go through the sheep farm budget in detail over the next few weeks and get a good feel for where savings and efficiencies can be achieved.
Since I last wrote things have been quite busy, the list of jobs is never ending! Weed spraying, fixing fences, completing handling pens - the list goes on. I've managed to do a bit of shearing too but haven't quite loosened up the dormant muscles yet. My time management skills are being pushed to the limit!
Sheep are doing well and recent dung samples have shown a low worm burden in the lambs. This is a bonus given that I practice a sheep-only system and wouldn’t consider the pasture to be very clean. It may be that the wormer used on sheep post-lambing has done an excellent job, although I have had to dose a small batch of later-born lambs that had coccidiosis. Thinking ahead, the jury is out on what age to wean my lambs. Many of them are being reared by ewe lambs and therefore will require a bit of TLC to gain condition for mating again.
I managed to tie in our second NSA Next Generation Ambassador trip with a visit to NSA Welsh Sheep, which certainly didn't disappoint. I was very impressed with the whole event and particularly the welcoming nature of everyone. Wales looked to be a fantastic place to farm sheep. Our NSA Ambassador session was as packed as ever with information. Everyone was a bit more relaxed this time and the quality of information was top notch as usual; my note book is filling up nicely.
Our hosts Andy Wear and Jen Hunter were really inspirational in their approach to adding value to their farm in multiple ways. Andy especially was such an encouraging man and his positive attitude and love for his job is infectious. We need more people like him in our industry.
It’s hard to believe that summer solstice has been and gone and it feels like spring never lasts long enough. However I do love the distinction between our seasons that other parts of the world don't have.
I haven't managed to put in as much shearing as landscaping this year. As landscaping has taken up the majority of my time, most of my sheep work has been confined to the evenings and weekends. With my land spread out in different locations I spend a lot of time trucking sheep around compared to some shepherds and it makes grass management tricky at times. I've also had to do some topping in areas where grass has run to stem, much to my shame.
I took the plunge and weaned all the lambs at 12 weeks old, mainly to allow the hoggetts to gain condition for the autumn. I also sold some store tup lambs privately after weaning, which helped with cash flow and reduced pressure on grass supply. The price I received was good in the current climate, however if I am to continue lambing ewe lambs on contract I would need to cut costs and/or increase my sales figures. On a more positive note, I have some flash looking ewe lambs to keep as breeding stock or sell later in the year. It's good to have options and hopefully I can keep lambs growing on to reach tupping weights by November. Worm burdens remain low according to tests carried out by my vet so this has been a significant victory for our parasite control strategies.
I'm looking forward to our upcoming NSA Next Generation Ambassador session in late July to thrash out some of my sheep issues with my fellow shepherds. It's a great advantage to share successes and failures with other sheep farming folk who understand exactly what it's like.
The hot topics in UK agriculture at the moment are the farm gate prices of lamb and milk. We have witnessed all sorts of protests and measures to force lamb price into the public eye and to try and shame the large retailers into reducing imported meat on their shelves and offer a greater return for our home grown product.
I have to admit that in moments of despair at farm gate margins, I feel sympathetic to the hard-line approach, but is this the image of the ranting blockading farmer who throws all the toys out of the pram when we don’t get what we want really the image of sheep farmers we want the public to see? There are few other industries in the world that have such passion for what they do, and that is fantastic. There are also very few industries in the world who can survive without adapting to the financial climate they are in. It begs the question, how do we channel that passion?
Personally I believe I have a long way to go to making my business as efficient as it can be. So while I really require a good price for my lamb, I’m also very aware that many other sheep farmers costs of production, growth rates, labour costs and so on are much more desirable than my own. Therefore I believe I need to channel my energy and time into these areas. If I keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s insane to expect a different result the next time!
On the farm, all sheep have been fluked after dung samples showed fluke eggs present. Contract ewe lambs are heading back home to North Antrim in the next few weeks and I look forward to taking on some more ewe lambs in the autumn. Grass supplies are good, but I’ve been contacting my winter keep lads to keep them on board for taking sheep as soon as possible.
Being part of NSA Next Generation programme has encouraged me to keep going and strive to be part of a better sheep industry. As many of us begin to think of what we want to achieve in the next year from our sheep enterprise, lets challenge the thinking that we had last year and maybe even make some changes as we enter a new breeding season.
So September has been a rather memorable month. Since graduating over ten years ago, it's been a struggle to find a job working with sheep at home in Northern Ireland. I'd never really wanted to move away and when wading through the jobs and careers pages in magazines and on the Internet, the best jobs were never remotely near me- in all this time I have applied for one sheep related job.
So when the owner my contract ewe lambs told me his brother-in-law was going into sheep farming alongside his existing business, my first thought was does he need a shepherd? So, after few days and an informal interview it appears I am now the manager of a nearly 400 strong flock of Lleyn type ewes. Not only is this a shepherding job, but I'll be working with the type of sheep I believe in and will be involved heavily with how the flock is managed and developed. Shepherding will probably take up half of my time and I can spend the rest doing landscaping and any other work I get my hands on.
I believe it's a case of being ready and prepared for when an opportunity comes along. The absolute satisfaction and feel good factor of doing something you love as a career should never be underestimated. The feeling of that first day being a professional shepherd will forever be etched on my memory. Now for about three weeks, I've been sourcing new breeding stock, shearing ewe lambs, fluke drenching, weaning lambs, condition scoring the list goes on. My next major task is vaccinate all stock for abortion and try and then try get a winter feed plan put together.
It will be a challenge to manage stocking rates to suit land I know little about. We plan to take soil samples, measure farm cover and work from there. I also have a few stock rams to purchase and a few more breeding sheep, if we can find the sheep we want. I can't wait to get stuck into it!
Sheep work has been steady since last month and I'm very much revelling in my new role. With my shepherding job, I have vaccinated all sheep against toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion. I have also administered a six month trace element bolus to all breeding sheep. This is my first experience of using boluses, so hopefully they do the job in combating the low selenium and iodine availability and I am much happier knowing that these particular areas are covered, I've also managed to get the majority of replacement ewe lambs shorn.
We are in the process of purchasing some mobile handling and weighing gear and while this will be a substantial investment, it will hopefully pay for itself very quickly. More efficient handling of sheep will reduce labour requirements, as labour is one of the main costs to the enterprise anything that reduces man hours per ewe is a major positive. It will also allow us to monitor lamb growth rates closely next season and respond to data we collect, we can then use this to identify our highest performers and retain these for breeding. The first job to test the system will be sorting the ewe lambs into batches heavy enough for mating or just running on until next year.
With my own flock I have a ram turned out to some ewes so that we have a few March lambs that can be taken into schools pre-Easter. I have a few more ewe lambs arriving to be farmed on contract for the next ten months but these won't be lambed until April. I'm a lot more prepared this time around and know exactly the costs involved. The plan will be to lamb a little later and reduce the amount of concentrates fed and maximise the use of grass. I'm also hoping for a better price for male lambs in 2016, as this year the system didn't leave a rewarding margin.
Sheep farmers seem to have a very short memory so while this is good for putting bad times behind us, we mustn't neglect the need to use our shortcomings to improve our efforts the following season.
It’s hard to comprehend that it’s nearly 12 months since I sat myself down at the PC to fill out the application for the NSA Next Generation Ambassadors programme. What a year it has been! I’ve had 12 months of rubbing shoulders with the great and good of the sheep industry and it has been agreat experience.
The year has taught me many things about sheep and sheep farming, and I have also learnt a lot about myself. Firstly, the most progressive farmers are not all doing the same thing, so there appears to be more than one path to success; that is for sure. Also networking is a key element to having a well-rounded approach to the
business, even to the point where people are willing to openly share their highs as well as their lows on the farming journey. Thirdly, and perhaps the most intriguing part of the whole picture, is the overwhelming enthusiasm for the job and optimism for the future that these men and women possess – to the point where it is infectious. I believe a lot of my future success will hinge on the people I have around me and my own attitude. Already after a few months my farming career has developed, I hope, in the right direction. I’ve taken on a part-time shepherding job with almost 500 sheep. I hope this will develop into something more permanent with increased stock numbers and a stake in the business. I also want to increase my own flock, which is a challenge, but I will not be giving up on without a fight.
In recent weeks I had a few appearances in the farming press, which I hope will raise my profile and perhaps bring more opportunities. I had the privilege of speaking at the NSA Northern Ireland Region Annual Members Meeting and was elected to the local committee. I hope to learn a lot in it this new position, and will continue to be an enthusiastic voice in the sheep farming world.