Blog: Robert Spink
1st March 2016
Robert Spink (24) is an NSA Next Generation Ambassador from Hepworth on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Unusually for arable men based on the east side of the country, Robert believes sheep give him just as much opportunity, if not more, than crops. He has been working to find the right balance between crops and sheep on the family farm, which he took over after losing his father nearly three years ago. Identifying poorer part of the 120 acres where the sheep are more suitable, Robert has developed a real appetite for exploiting the role of sheep in other parts of the arable-dominated area of Diss where he lives.
His aim is to increase from 120 Mule ewes to 400, selling an increasing number of homebred Texel Mules for breeding. He is already finishing store lambs and knows there is potential with that too. Robert’s passion for sheep means he’d also like to swap contracting work on a tractor for shepherding and shearing instead.
“There is no family connection with sheep, but I’ve got the wind in my sails at the moment and am really starting to get my teeth into it,” Robert told the selection panel. “I want arable farmers to understand where sheep can fit in and be the person to help achieve that. A lot of arable farmers are really good at working together, so why not with other sectors too?”
Top fact: As well as being focused on his own business, Robert is very keen to campaign for the sheep industry and says he is looking forward to being involved with NSA to push this further.
Scroll down for entries from Robert about his farming year so far in 2016.
The first six weeks of the year are some of the quietest of my farming calendar. Alongside ongoing sheep work, my time has been filled with maintenance, gritting during the cold snaps and thinking about future plans. I have also been able to get on top of the rabbits that seem to be abundant on the farm this year.
The scanning results were pleasing at 203% and no empties, with the first lambs due on Valentine’s Day. Things have been a little slow to get going, but the lambs on the ground are looking strong and the ewes are in really good order. I am confident once things get going in earnest, there will be some really quality lambs on the farm. The help and advice of a great friend Jim Cresswell has been invaluable over the last few weeks and I can’t thank him enough for this.
The ewe lambs have been put to the tup and will be lambing in May. February has seen the last of the store lambs leaving the farm and as my intention is to run a much larger number of these this year, I’m sure this will affect how quiet the start of my year is in 2017. The biggest excitement however has been the arrival of my first working dog- Titch- and training will soon be underway. However, I am more concerned about myself than the dog as I have much to learn too!
The first NSA Ambassador delivery session was a really brilliant couple of days, and I am very proud to be involved. It was great to meet people of a similar age, all keen to push things forward with their passion for the sheep industry. I have taken a huge amount away from the first session, not only from the programme itself, which was very informative with brilliant speakers and topics, but also through getting to know the rest of the group. I’ve already started picking up new ideas and fresh ways of doing things. Targets were set during the session and I hope that I am able to fulfil these during the year, and I’m really looking forward to the next session in May.
Soon things will be getting nicely busy as lambing gets truly underway and the arable calendar starts to kick off again, with top dressing already starting locally and spring cultivations just around the corner. The warm sun of the last couple of days gives a glimpse of what is to come, and it will be more than welcome.
Firstly I hope everyone has had a good Easter and that lambing has gone, is going or goes well.
All in all, I am very happy with the way lambing has gone this year and the ewes and lambs are looking really good out at grass. Through the course of lambing, I seem to have seen a little bit of everything which has been really good for gaining experience. Although unfortunately I had some trouble with toxoplasma abortion at the beginning, the figures are still pleasing and I am looking forward to sitting down with my diary to look over these properly and to consider where things can be improved for next year. I managed to find a good home for my cade lambs too which has turned out well for both parties.
Hopefully the weather will turn again soon and this time warm up so the grass will start growing in earnest. I have plenty for the ewes to go at and they are looking well but I am looking forward to seeing them on some spring growth. My wheat could also do with a nudge from some warm weather and as predicted we have been busy with fertiliser, field work and drilling. Apart from getting through the rest of this spring work, my attention is now fixed on keeping the ewes and lambs going at their best over the next few weeks and I am confident I can do this without too many problems.
Titch, my puppy, is getting on nicely and I am assured that he is full of potential. My cocker spaniel Alf has also spent a lot of time in the yard with me over the last few weeks and seems to have a keen interest in what’s going on, perhaps he will pick up the job as well.
It has been interesting seeing the Suffolk and Texel cross lambs growing beside each other. I only have Texel tups here but I bought some in lamb ewes that had been put to a Suffolk. I do like the Suffolk lambs but I will be keeping with the Texels and have been really impressed with the way they’re coming along, especially at how quick they are to get going at lambing time.
There have been a number of debates I have been keeping my eye on over the last few weeks in the farming media and wider press. The Brexit debate soldiers on, and I must admit I need to do more research on this before the referendum. My instinct tells me we would be better off as we are, but there are points that come up in debate which make me look other way. New Zealand lamb being offered in supermarkets has also been a contentious issue, and is one that irritates me but I do see from all angles. The issue has been particularly poignant recently as my Kiwi friend Bushy has been helping me a lot recently and some considerable banter has been had over the issue. I’ve been reading about the possible reintroduction of the lynx with dread, and really hope this doesn’t go ahead. What a nightmare that could turn out to be. Finally, as one of many yet to receive my BPS payment, I am starting to get a little agitated about the subject to say the least. This is something that seriously needs to be looked at moving forward, and it is fortunate I’m able to carry the business until the payment is received as I am sure there are some who at this late stage may be starting to struggle.
I also had a trip up north to Newark market with some cull ewes recently. I was pleased with the trade and managed to achieve my target price. I really enjoy a day out to market and try and get to my more local Norwich and Colchester when I can as it’s great to keep an eye on prices and see some faces. You also always get a good breakfast at a market! Things are well at Dunhill Farm as we move through the Spring. I am really looking forward to second NSA Next Generation session and it will be great to catch up with everyone. It will soon be time to run the lambs over the scales for the first time, I hope they weigh as well as they look. I can’t believe we will soon be into May already, this year is definitely going too quickly!
The lambs have recently been put over the scales and I am more than happy with how they are looking and weighing. There will be enough lambs ready to make the trip down the A12 to Colchester worthwhile in a couple of weeks, with one or two weighing 40kg now. Here’s to hoping they reach a price that reflects the quality of the product. This week has also seen the now annual trip up to North Norfolk to look at some more North Country Mule shearlings. They come from the same draw off of the same farm up in the Pennines each year so you know roughly what they will be like. They were a really good run of sheep and I will be more than happy to take some after harvest, the exact amount is to be confirmed but the flock will increase considerably I hope. With the amount of grazing I am picking up, growth needs to reflect this so as not to miss out on any opportunities, the way I look at it is they may not come up again!
Over the past few weeks I have been helping a local farmer with sheep and cattle work and although I love the tractor work it has been a welcome change. It is slowly but surely becoming apparent that my heart is in livestock and not arable farming. This has also led to some possible shearing (well...learning to shear) which is an opportunity that I am really looking forward to. Getting over to other farms has not only allowed to me pick up on what other people are doing, but also to appreciate that I actually know a fair bit about sheep farming now, which is exciting for someone that two years ago knew very little. It is great that you can achieve such a growth in knowledge if you throw yourself at something, saying that though I realise I have vast amounts still to learn.
The grass is really growing now and there has been silage cut locally. Soon the Suffolk show will be upon us which I am very much looking forward to. However soon after that we will be thinking about cutting hay and soon after that harvest will start and silly season will commence, to be honest I can’t wait!
With unsettled weather being the topic of thoughts and conversation among the hay barons of Suffolk, it’s taken until 1st July for us to be able to cut some hay. We are about three weeks behind now, but at least we are underway and as I write there isn’t a cloud in the sky so fingers crossed.
The first lambs have been to market achieving a good price on the day, we’ll be looking to draw some more out before to long and if the ewe lambs continue as they are, ahead of the wethers, I’ll be putting them to a Southdown tup belonging to my good friend Jim Cresswell.
Bush (our kiwi mate who has become part of the furniture) has taught me to shear which has been really great, and what with the wet weather creating a high risk of fly and our usual shearer being held up, I decided to get stuck in. It is addictive! And soon after we finished, I wished I had some more to do. It was great to be taught by Bush and it is a skill I’ll never forget, he will be sorely missed when he departs later this year.
I have almost heard enough about Brexit, but it seemed wrong not to mention it. It will be really interesting to see how things pan out. I would have liked to have seen us remain, however we are here now so we just need to hope the politicians can lead us through the transition safely. I’ve decided on the back of this to focus on things I can really change – my farm and what’s happening here on the Suffolk/Norfolk Border.
Looking ahead, I am really looking forward to the NSA Sheep Event and the next Ambassador session around it. It will be my first time at the Sheep Event this year and will be great to have a good look round, meet plenty of people and hopefully get chatting and inspire future NSA Next Generation Ambassadors!
The highlight July for me has to be the NSA Sheep Event, which I attended as part of our most recent NSA Next Generation session and being at the event with rest of the group made me feel very proud of how far I’ve come with the sheep enterprise at home. There was a brilliant atmosphere all day and it was great to see everyone in the industry together in one place, enjoying the day. There was a huge amount to take away from it and the pre-event dinner the evening before was also fantastic, luckily the wine did not dampen my spirits the next day.
Once we got going with the hay back home, things went quite smoothly during July and we managed to get around 4,500 conventional bales sorted in good order. This year my good friends Chris and Sam Groom baled them for me, using a bale baron which has made a huge difference to the work load.
Moving into August, harvest struck as it does every year and the juggling of sheep, my own work and working for others begun in earnest. There was little rain in Suffolk, so we were able to soldier on and get done in reasonably time. Saying that, the 2am finishes and the early starts going after sheep start did start to pinch. At least it is all in the shed now though. August also saw the last of the finished lambs go to market, achieving an above average price on the day which I was pleased with. This only leaves me with 20 lambs that are not quite fit so will be run as stores over winter.
The ewes have now moved from the stud they’ve been grazing since weaning and are now at the ex-dairy farm ready to flushed in a week or so. There is a plentiful supply for them to go at, so hopefully they will feed well and a successful tupping season will follow. The ewe lambs are looking really well too, having been shorn in the last few weeks and I’m glad I took the decision to have them done.
In terms of the arable work. which seems to dominate at the moment, things are going well with cultivations well under way. But for this and the grass some rain is desperately needed now. mThis week I’m off to collect another 200 North Country Mule shearlings to add to the team. I’m really excited about this and with the 40 suffolk mules already purchased, we will be tupping 350 at Dunhill Farm. The decision has been taken to vaccinate these against both types of abortion and with an increasing fly risk about, they will also all be covered again in the coming days. All these sheep will join the older ewes and be tupped at the same farm before too long. Hopefully work will go back to some sort of normality during the winter months and fingers crossed scanning percentages will be promising!
I’ve been able to pick up more grass recently, which has been great and there has been an offer of a considerable amount of cover coming my way so in terms of feed so I’m confident we will be able to keep growing as I intend to. I’ve also had a go at shooting into stardom this month, having a chat with Sara Cox on the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, and I even managed to get the sheep in the chat!
At home things are ticking along nicely with the sheep. The tups will be going in on the 20th October and you can imagine, they are keen! All the ewes are now together at the dairy farm on some great grass. The vaccinations went well and they are in great order. The ewe lambs continue to do well, however the decision has been made to tup them as shearlings in 2017. Shearing these has turned out to be a great decision and one I would recommend.
The main work on the farm at this time has been cultivation and drilling. All the wheat is now in the ground and the first fields are starting to come through so it seems I have put it in the right way up! It went in really well this year so hopefully there will be a good start for it.
I have recently been to my first NSA Eastern Region Committee Meeting and was made to feel really welcome. In fact, I am now also on the NSA English Committee which is great as my intention was always to get as involved in the NSA as much as possible following the end of the Next Generation programme. Phil Stoker, NSA Chief Executive, spoke to us about the NSA position on Brexit so alongside others, I will wait to see how it all pans out.
I wish everyone well with tupping in the next few weeks and for those involved in the arable world, I hope a slightly quieter time is enjoyed. I’m also looking forward to the final NSA Next Generation Ambassador session in November. It will be disappointing to think there won’t be another one.
The wheat is well and truly up and away here on the farm and it’s pleasing to see it looking well. The year has gone full circle and as mentioned in my first blog I will soon be getting my traps out and going after the rabbits.
The ewes continue to do well and tupping seems to be going along nicely, now I am getting more and more excited for scanning and later lambing. I have been offered some fodder radish and fodder rye to graze, so the ewes will soon be moving to graze this. It will be interesting to see how it goes and if both parties are happy, it is an opportunity which will hopefully continue over the coming years. It’s been good to finally clear up the cull ewes and some odds and sods, leaving me with the remaining lambs from this year to go into the breeding flock. We’ve now got 350 ewes being tupped and I’m hopeful the growth to the flock will continue.
In terms of other work I have recently passed my Class 1 lorry licence so have been busy hauling beet when not working on the farm at home.
Finally, I would like to say what a brilliant experience this last year has been taking part in the five NSA Next Generation Ambassador delivery sessions. I have learnt a huge amount and met some brilliant and inspiring people and I would urge anyone who is passionate about the sheep sector to try and get involved.