Blog: Michael Ritch
1st March 2016
Michael Ritch (24) is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. While not a new entrant to farming, Michael is new to having sheep around. He returned to the family beef and arable farm three years ago and, having encouraged his father and grandfather to buy an extra block of nonarable land with no buildings, breeding sheep became a new thing for the business.
Store lambs had always been bought in, for finishing on grass and turnips, but Michael has now established an outdoor lambing, low input multiplier flock for the Logie Durno brand. He is enthusiastic about the flock and keen to increase numbers and improve grazing management, but says he still has a lot to learn about sheep and hopes the ‘exposure to new ideas, outlooks and opinions’ as an NSA Next Generation Ambassador will benefit him and the sheep.
Michael struck the selection panel with his very business-minded attitude and his belief that young people with a lot of ambition have a bright future, as long as they focus on efficiency and keeping production costs low.
Top fact: Having previously done a degree in chemical engineering with a view to working in the local oil industry, Michael says the opportunity to come home is one he has never regretted. “I’ve been able to stop the business winding down and drive it forward instead,” he says. “I love the farm and, once I was home, that was me; I lost interest in the oil industry very quickly.”
Scroll down for entries from Michael about his farming year so far in 2016.
It’s coming up to a year since I purchased the first of my breeding sheep flock, consisting of 70 in-lamb hoggs and 55 in-lamb ewes, before I increased further post-lambing with the purchase of ewes with lambs at foot.
A year on and I am preparing to scan the ewes and ewe-lambs for the first time having taken them through weaning, flushing, tupping and winter grazing, all of which were new experiences for me. I am nervous and excited to find out the results of the scan, which will show whether my management skills so far have been a success- and whether my tups have been up to the job!
Having faced such a wet end to December into most of January, the lambs have had a tough time on the neeps so we introduced hoppers slightly earlier than usual to get them fit for market. With the lamb price edging slowly in the right direction, I am optimistic that they will provide a worthwhile return.
We are also in the middle of calving our herd of 130 Aberdeen Angus cross suckler cows and four weeks in, have 66 calves on the ground. Seed dressing is also on the agenda for the week ahead, which is another reminder that spring is not far away.
Last week I travelled down to the first NSA Ambassador delivery session. It was fantastic to meet the other 11 ambassadors as well as the NSA team running the programme, amd was beneficial to be in a situation where we could ask questions and discuss different points which is something you can’t do when just reading an article in a magazine. We couldn’t have asked for a better day for the farm visit on day two, with the farm and livestock looking immaculate. The tour, led by 2014 NSA Next Generation Ambassador Kate Robinson, was great and gave us a chance to see first-hand how performance recording is being used.
Typically, after enjoying such fantastic weather in the tropics of Gloucestershire, I was greeted by a covering of snow on my arrival back in Aberdeenshire. I look forward to the next NSA Ambassador delivery session at the end of May, after what I hope will be a successful lambing with no mention of snow!
March has brought a much-welcomed change in the weather. The ground has dried out allowing us to get going with fertiliser application to get the grass growing and the last of the ploughing finished in time to start sowing this years spring crops.
The ewes were scanned on the last day of February with a pleasing 127% scanning rate in the hoggs and 190% in the ewes. It was a relief to know that my new tups had done their job and the ewes were carrying a decent amount of lambs. The ewes have since finished their winter strip grazing and are now back onto grass in the run upto lambing.
The store lambs have also finished their winter strip grazing turnips and have been split up into similar weighted groups and put onto grass with additional hoppers. We have been selling 200 lambs a week since the beginning of March with mixed results. The auction mart has seen mixed demand and volatile prices and a frustrating lack of consistency in what the buyers are looking for, which has lead me to experiment with selling deadweight for the first time with prime lambs. I would say it has been a successful experiment so far and I like having a specification to aim for and knowing that if the lambs hit the spec, what price they will achieve, rather than the lottery of the auction sales. That said, should the market lift through April the live auction may well prove favourable.
As an NSA Next Generation Ambassador, an opportunity arose to take part in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. Myself and Clarke Hibberd, a member of the 2015 Ambassador group, were interviewed on our views on the future for young people in sheep farming and the future of the industry as a whole. It was a good experience and an opportunity which I wouldn’t have been considered for had it not been for NSA.
I have also been enjoying the BBC’s This Farming Life series which has graced our television screens the past few weeks. It’s great that the industry is getting primetime publicity and I hope that this will help to give the public an extra incentive to buy British produce!
The last week of March gave us a little teaser of spring up in the north east of Scotland, allowing the spring sowing to get underway. Unfortunately, spring was short lived and we seem to have arrived back in mid-winter. It’s been a frustrating few weeks waiting for the weather to improve, leaving us a lot to do in a short space of time before lambing begins. The ewes were given their pre lambing heptavac booster and wormer at the end of March, and were split into lambing groups based on the number of lambs they were carrying and their condition score. They seem to be in reasonably good shape, with only triplets and a handful of leaner ewes receiving concentrates to maintain condition.
We are wearing through the store lambs now, with just a couple hundred left on grass and hoppers. Easter disappointingly failed to provide much of a price rise with trade remaining fairly mediocre throughout. I’m looking forward to getting the last of them away to free up the grass for turning cattle out. The forecast for the week ahead is positive, so with any luck we will be able to crack on and get the sowing finished and the cattle turned out before lambing begins. There are a lot of lambs appearing on neighbouring farms now, so I’m looking forward to getting started.
As the rain, wind and hail has continued into the beginning of May, I was beginning to dread the thought of outdoor lambing. But as luck would have it the weather transformed just in time for the first lambs to drop and as I write this, two weeks into lambing I even boast a bit of a sun tan! So far it has been a reasonably successful, with over three quarters of the ewes lambing in the first two weeks. They are starting to slow up a bit now but hopefully another week will see them all lambed in time for the next NSA Next Generation session. It’s great to see the fields filling up with lambs once again, and the grass too is growing well.
Away from the lambing field, all the store lambs have now been sold and all the cattle have been turned out to grass, with the bulls also being put in with the cows. The spring barley is all through the ground and receiving its first dose of fertiliser and weed control.
I’m looking forward to the NSA Next Generation delivery session in a weeks time, which will come as a welcome break after a hectic few weeks in the lambing field.
As lambing drew to an end towards the end of May, I headed down to Bristol for the second NSA Next Generation delivery session. Over the two days we discussed everything from performance recording and FEC’s to business planning and bench marking, not to mention the debates regarding Brexit over dinner and around the camp fire! Our hosts and speakers over the two days were all fantastic and I’m sure if it wasn’t for Joanne’s impeccable time keeping we’d still be there now (probably still debating whether Robert should worm his lambs or not; or whether it is actually possible to keep 450 ewes with twin lambs on just 15 acres for 2 months!) I certainly returned home feeling inspired and enthused to expand and improve my flock and business in every way possible!
Since the delivery session things have been fairly quiet at home which allowed a trip down to the NSA Scot Sheep event on 1st June. It was a great day out and a super chance to view one of Scotlands largest sheep flocks first hand at Blythbank farm, Peeblesshire.
Back home on the farm, we managed to get first cut silage done in perfect conditions and have just given the lambs their first vaccination against clostridial diseases and some protection against blowfly strike. Next job on the agenda weather permitting is shearing. The only other thing left to comment on is the surprising result of the EU referendum. As a remain voter I was rather disappointed by the result, however, I am confident that as a nation we can make any outcome work for us.
Most of my time throughout July has been spent doing the mundane but necessary jobs like machinery maintenance and washing out sheds ready to store grain all the while trying to fit in the shearing team with a dry weather window. The lambs got their second vaccination against clostridial diseases and we recruited a new member to the team in the form of Meg our new collie pup!
Fortunately, towards the end of the month brought about the next NSA Next Generation delivery session, which saw us back in Malvern. This time we enjoyed a discussion with Wyn Owen on various personal development skills, a far too short farm tour with Richard Sparey followed by a lengthier stint debating all things farming over a pint or two and a very informative meeting at the Barenbrug grass breeding site. This delivery session also coincided with the NSA Sheep Event and as a group, we were delighted to be invited to the pre-event dinner the evening before. It was a fantastic evening with great company and a delicious meal and I hope to be a regular attendee in years to come. The following day was the event itself, which was a great success! The NSA Next Generation area, new to the event this year, saw constant traffic and I was lucky enough to come first in the four nations Ready Steady Cook Competition.
After a long journey back up the road to Aberdeen, arriving home at 5am, we even managed to bring the sun back with us and managed to get the sheep shorn rounding off yet another great trip.
Second cut silage is done and dusted for another year and we were lucky again to get it all in in good conditions. Harvest has crept up on us and we have cut the early varieties of spring barley which are kept for feed with the malting varieties still a week or two away.
The lambs are looking well and once the silage aftermath has grown sufficiently, I will think about weaning the lambs onto it. I’m also about to do my first FEC sample to determine weather my lambs would benefit from a worming at weaning time.
I recently took home four new Logie hybrid tups from the Logie Durno on farm tup sale which I plan to put onto my ewe lambs this December. I am very pleased with my purchases and look forward to seeing their lambs on the ground come springtime. The next few weeks will be fairly busy with harvest but I will be wherever possible promoting Love Lamb Week, running from 1st-7th September- starting with my lamb sandwiches from the combine seat.
Harvest has been progressing well thanks to a decent spell of weather. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a summer, yields and quality are poor but at least we’re saving a bit on drying costs.
A night of rain gave me a chance to wean the lambs whilst waiting for the barley to dry up again. I was fairly pleased with majority of the weaning weights and drew out a few ready for the abattoir. I also took this opportunity to worm the lambs with the results of my FEC suggesting that the worm count was approaching a level that would warrant a drench. Hopefully these lambs will now thrive on the silage aftermath where they are being rotationally paddock grazed and I will get a decent draw of fat lambs in the coming weeks. I will be doing a post drench FEC to determine if there are any signs of worm resistance.
It’s coming to the time of year when we start to purchase store lambs to keep over the winter. With the finished price remaining strong and the store price reflecting this, our buying bill will be well up on last year, not that I’m complaining as I think this is a good sign for the sheep sector. I just hope that the efforts of Love Lamb Week keep the demand high right through until the spring when I come to sell them! On that topic it was great to see so much promotion of lamb during the Love Lamb Week campaign and I hope this continues to remind people and encourage them to eat lamb for the rest of the month and year. On that note I think my roast lamb is nearly ready!
Harvest now seems like a distant memory as the days become shorter and shorter. The cattle are now mostly inside and the calves weaned, as we get back into the autumn winter routine. This has freed up grass for the recently purchased store lambs which are all home and thriving.
Home bred lambs have been going away weekly with only about 80 left. I’ve been very impressed with their weight gains on the rotational paddock grazing system. So much so that I’ve been struggling to get them away quick enough! I was also pleased that the results of my post drench test showed no signs of resistance, proving the drench had done its job. The ewe lambs have just received their abortion vaccinations and are now fully prepared for the tupping season, which is not far away.
Having finished harvest a week before the fourth NSA Next Generation delivery session, I was able to travel down to Bradford guilt free to enjoy yet another fantastic three days. Starting off at the British Wool Marketing Board, we saw what happens to our wool once it leaves the farm, which I have to admit I hadn’t really ever thought about before. Each and every fleece is graded individually and we saw first-hand how a well presented fleece makes it easier for the grader to do his/her job. We were also shown around a nearby scouring plant which was really quite fascinating to see how a fleece is washed, dried and then transformed into a more usable form.
Equally as fascinating was the tour of Dunbia’s abattoir and packing plant in Preston. We were given the opportunity to grade some live lambs and then follow them through the process to a hung carcase. It was very interesting to feel how different breeds handle so differently yet can grade the same. The packing plant was also a real eye opener, seeing just how much work goes in to getting the product to the form as we see it on the supermarket shelf. The session was rounded off with a blind taste test between British and New Zealand lamb. I’m relieved to say that my taste buds chose the British to be best however I have to admit there wasn’t much between them!
So far November’s been a fairly quiet month with the wet weather holding up a lot of the outdoor tasks we’d like to be getting on with such as fencing, spreading muck and ploughing. The grass has been standing up pretty well for the sheep and the store lambs look to have grown a lot since they came home. The teaser tups went in with the ewe lambs this week to hopefully get them cycling for when the breeding tups go in on the 7th of December. A couple of weeks ago we hosted a stock judging for the young farmers which was well attended and a great success.
Next week I will be travelling down to Warwickshire for the fifth and final delivery session for this years NSA Next Generation programme. I am thoroughly looking forward to it, although disappointed for it to be coming to an end! I have learnt a huge amount at each session and I would recommend anyone with an interest and a passion for the sheep industry to apply for next years programme as it really has been worthwhile. I would also like to use my last blog post as an opportunity to thank all those at the NSA responsible for organising the sessions and to everyone who has hosted us throughout the year and taken the time to speak to us.