What My First Year of Farming Has Taught Me

My first year of farming has been far from easy. There have been new arrivals, sad departures, positive changes and difficult times (on and off the farm) and whilst overall it’s still an experience I hold dear, I know I will be making some changes for 2018, through the lessons that the past year has taught me.

I wanted to reflect over my first 12 months of Muddy Boots Farm and pass on some of the advice I wish I was given (or listened to, let’s be honest) when I was starting out.

Big is Not Always Better – I was always worried about the size of my flock/herd and the number of animals I had. Last year I had 22 sheep, 21 chickens and 21 pigs in total, frankly I didn’t need half of them! I was so worried that I wouldn’t be classed as a “proper farmer” until I had so and so number of animals and in the end, whether I farm 2 or 222 pigs, I am still a farmer. All that happens when you are over stocked, is you end up with a backlog of produce, a huge feed bill and a never ending to-do list. Keep your livestock numbers manageable and it will definitely help your finances, stress levels and attitude towards the farm. When you feel like you are forever chasing your tail, without a moment to breathe, it is easy to start hating something that you entered into so positively, be realistic and don’t over-stretch yourself. For 2018, I am basing my livestock purchases on quality, rather than quantity. I’m downsizing my flock of sheep and refusing to be swayed by group purchase bargains.

Pre-Sell Produce Where Possible – this links nicely to not being overstocked. With my eggs and poultry, I’ve got a good thing going on. I’m selling boxes of eggs before they’ve been laid. I may even be reaching the point where I need to invest in some more chickens… but with my pigs I made a huge mistake. I wasn’t planning ahead and before I knew it I’d have four six month old weaners sat in a pen ready for the abattoir. This often meant that I was keeping the growers for longer than necessary, meaning I was wasting money on feed and eating into an already tight profit margin. It also meant that when the meat was returned to me from the butcher, I was rushing to get it sold within a few days or freezing it and trying to resell it at a later date. I would have been much better off if I had planned ahead and taken pre-orders or at least been able to inform people when my pork was going to be ready. This year I am going to book the abbatoir on the week I get my weaners in and start advertising my pork ‘as for sale from blah blah Date‘ at the same time.

Summer is Great But Just You Wait For Winter – when the sun is beating down on your skin and you can work outside until 10pm, farming really is at its peak appeal. However breaking ice when it’s below zero, wrapping up in every layer you own and constantly trying to regain blood flow in your extremities; soon becomes a chore. For 2018, I am going to make sure I’m prepared for Winter. Realistically in the colder months and shorter days I need to be spending less time outdoors and to do this I’m going to keeping my numbers low and bring any vulnerable stock indoors. I am also going to start the battle with mud early, that means wood chips on the floor of the chicken run and gravel/hardcore at the pen entrances from October onwards. I’m currently doing this in January and it’s all a tiny bit “too little, too late”.

Pigs Are Escape Artists – one month my pigs escaped over 10 times. They jump 4 foot post and rail, they root under stock and they can outsmart electric fencing. They’re b*stards. This year, I’m keeping my pig pens large and understocked, with all boars being castrated, to avoid them wishing to escape and keeping my fingers crossed and freezer full of the naughty ones.

Land Needs To Be Rested – it is all too easy to get carried away when you first start farming, by filling every field and pen with as many animals as they can take. But to avoid build up of worms, all your grass disappearing and a soggy, muddy mess; you’ll need to rest your land. My plan this year is to have a period of rest over winter, when I do not have any sheep/pigs on the land to allow it time to recover. I am hoping this will help with the mud battle (mentioned above), as well as improve the animals’ health and keep my fields grassy.

Never Underestimate How Much Grazing Sheep Need – last year I put six sheep on a 2/3 acre field and watched in disbelief as the grass disappeared completely in front of my eyes. Luckily, I had other land for them to graze on but it wasn’t in my plan for them to get through it so quickly and I soon realised that though they may be small, they are most definitely mighty. Also the number of separate fields must be considered for when the time comes to wean your lambs, it’s not just your boys and girls that you’re separating, you’ll need a whole other field for your weaned lambs. And if you’re not castrating you’ll need to split your boy and girl lambs too. I plan to castrate this year and I plan to split up one of my larger fields to make room.

Choose Breeds Based on You and Your Farm – you can visit any breed society in the world and they’ll all tell you their breed is the best thing ever. What is not important to you, is what everyone else thinks of the breed. What is important, is how suitable the breed is for you. There’s no point choosing a breed because it produces the biggest meat carcass but it’s so large you cannot carry out any of the animal husbandry needed. Similarly, there is no point buying a breed who is used to living up a mountain in -30c when you live next to a housing estate in Guildford. Choose breeds that suit your land and suit you as a person. DON’T do as everyone says and see what the farmer next door to you has and pick the same because he’s not going to be the same person as you, plus you never know he might not know what he’s doing. 2018 will be the year I choose breeds based on their ease of care, size, cost and flavour.

Eating and Sharing Your Own Produce is the Best Feeling in the World – ‘bringing home the bacon’ as it were, is there any better feeling? My first home grown pork chop was twice the size and had ten times the flavour of anything I’d ever tasted before. All that hard work and time spent chasing escapee pigs, had turned into something unforgettably gushy. One of my proudest moments of 2017, if not my life, was eating my first piece of Muddy Boots Farm free range pork. 2018, is the year I hope to also taste my first lamb and duck and I can’t bloomin’ wait.

Sorry, Bringing Life into the World is Actually the Best Feeling in the World – I take it all back, the best farming moment of 2017 was when 12 little chicks hatched from under my broody hen that I had bought as a day old chick back in April. It was definitely an “I just have a bit of dust in my eye” moment. Bringing life into the world is something that takes some beating. I hope to see a few lambs of my own born this year and hopefully a few more chicks too.

Invest in Reliable Transport – too many times in 2017 I found myself broken down at the side of the road or unable to get somewhere due to transport issues. In April I invested in a new truck and despite being the largest, it is also the most useful investment I made for the farm. When you’re transporting livestock or driving home fresh meat, a car letting you down can have a huge impact on your business, animal welfare or income and it’s not worth the hassle.

Stay on Top of Your Accounts and Paperwork – 2017 for me included four VAT returns, one self assessment tax return, fourteen movement licenses and countless registrations for important numbers. The one thing I was complete naive about in farming before I started, was the amount of paperwork involved. It seems for everything you do there is a form or a number that you need to have and if you don’t, well there’s trouble ahead. The best advice is to fill out paperwork as soon as you need to, don’t wait because you’ll forget the information you need or even worse just completely forget to do it. It’s the same with accounts, doing it as and when is much easier than trying to locate every receipt for the past three months to enter it into your system by the deadline, which is usually midnight that day.

Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself – I am definitely still working on this one. Farming is a tough job, at times you can feel isolated, like you’re doing everything wrong and you don’t understand why you put yourself through the turmoil every day. But you only have to spend ten minutes with most people in dead end or boring jobs to realise that really we aren’t the ones who’ve drawn the short straw when it comes to career choices. With the big highs like new arrivals to the farm, homegrown births and home grown produce there are of course going to be extreme lows such as deaths, financial losses and sick animals. It’s a case of positive thinking and when you’re feeling low recalling the good times and the reason you do the things you do. Easier said than done, I know, but in 2018 I’m going to be spending a lot more time appreciating what I’ve got and where I’ve come from.

Although I am only a year into my journey, I can already see the progress I have made and who knows maybe this year I will become a “real farmer”. I love what I do and every decision I made was with the right intentions. So even though I know that I made lots of mistakes in 2017, I am focusing on turning those mistakes into lessons. Let’s make 2018 a ruddy great year for me and the farm!

Speak soon

Katie x

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