I have wanted to write this post for a long time now but I keep making more mistakes and learning more about farming, so I wasn’t too sure when would be the right time to put this together! It seems that every day is a school day in farming and as my two year anniversary in the industry is coming up I thought I better share what I have done wrong and what I have learnt so far.
Keep It Manageable
This was the biggest mistake I made when I had my first smallholding, it is all too easy to get carried away and excited when you sign up for your first plot of land without thinking the practicalities through. I wanted to try keeping every breed, of every species to know what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, a pretty understandable thought pattern, right..? Well not when you try and do that all within 3 months of starting. I did not pace myself and ended up with a farm full to the brim, a never ending to-do list and a huge bill each month. I am lucky in some respects, as I have now kept most of the livestock that I wanted to try out and quite a few different breeds too in the turmoil of my first two years of farming. Now I have the experience of a completely unmanageable smallholding, I am certainly scaling back on my next project and sticking to 2/3 species and just the one breed of each. I have to be strict with myself this time around, but the size of my plot and my current job will keep me in check when it comes to stock purchases. The last thing you want to do when venturing into keeping stock is make it a purely unenjoyable process and a sure way to do that would be to put too much pressure and responsibility on your shoulders before you are ready.
Plan For the Unexpected
Last year, my whole life turned upside down when I split up with my partner of 7 years. It was the farm however where the greatest effect was felt. Farming is tough and I know my skillset, at the time it certainly did not revolve around practical tasks such as woodwork and knowing what tools to have (or even what tools were)… So when I was left with a farm full of sheep, pigs and poultry, lot of swear words were muttered. The one thing we can guarantee in farming is that it will always be unpredictable, so just keep make sure you have a plan that will help you to adapt. My plan for example, involved downsizing and only keeping stock that I could house/care for with my existing infrastructure and knowledge. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a huge life change like a relationship breakdown that causes upheaval on your farm; uncharacteristic weather, disease outbreak or personal illness are all issues that can have a serious impact on your farm and livestock. Have a back-up plan, I am certainly going to!
Winter Stock Density
This is a really important lesson that I learnt from a particular harsh Winter in early 2018, where the snowfall was completely unprecedented in my part of the world and certainly proved a huge stumbling block to a 26-year-old girl, living on her own and managing a flock of 22 sheep, in three different fields with blocked access even to her landlord’s tractors! I survived and so did my sheep, but it was far from pleasant. This has seriously influenced how I am going to run my next farm business and I plan to keep stock numbers as low as possible during the Winter months. I know this will reduce my profit because I will then not be able to keep a breeding flock/herd but it is a price I am willing to pay at this early stage in my farming career, simply to preserve my sanity and prevent all that worrying and effort ensuring my stock were safe. Once I have a farm house within walking distance of my barn full of livestock I can take that risk (dream big, right!) but now now.
Choosing The Right Stock
In most livestock guides it states to ask your neighbouring farms what livestock types/breeds they keep and follow suit. RUBBISH! I understand why this advice is regularly dished out, ordinarily those farmers would have been keeping that stock for a long time, they therefore obviously keep animals that are suited to the climate/terrain in your area – HOWEVER – Mr Smith from number 86 is not you. I made the mistake of taking on sheep breeds that were recommended to me or were kept on farms near to me. I then had one breed that was too large for me to turn single-handedly, making general care a right pain! I had another breed that was too skittish and whatever I tried would not come to me in the way my other sheep did, an important factor for my farm as I did not have any sheepdogs or machinery to assist in herding the flock. Lastly, I had one breed of sheep that needed bi-annual shearing and I lived in a part of the country that not only has a huge shortage of shearers, but also likes to charge the earth for such a service. In future, I will choose breeds on what suits me, my farm and what I want/need from the animal. For instance, my Ryelands were fantastic because they were a manageable size for me, they were pretty easy to purchase, were used to the terrain/climate of my farm, kept themselves out of trouble health wise and they were naturally easy to bucket train and herd (they used to load themselves on the trailer!).
Get It In Writing
I had a huge problem with renting grazing land, twice, without a contract (you’d think I would have learned by now!) and being given little to no notice when they wanted the land back or to up the rent. From now on, I am only taking on grazing land with a contract and a practical notice period, for my sanity and to protect the animals in my care. I will also only rent from farmers or those with some farming knowledge because I definitely do not want any more calls to tell me that my goats are being too noisy when they are literally just being goats!
Stop Trying to Be Perfect!
Although, with the help of social media, it may seem that you are the only one f***ing up it is certainly not true. The beauty and beast of farming is that it can be unpredictable, you are constantly relying on animals, weather, crop/stock prices etc. and really have you heard of a more unreliable bunch of external influences?? I am constantly hard on myself, trying to reach this perfection that we all seek, but all that does is make us unhappy, aren’t we all a weird bunch? So this year I am going to remind myself of this point regularly and just seek happiness rather than perfection.
Although this post may sound negative and like I did everything wrong in my first two years, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have so many things to be proud of and so many reasons to celebrate what I have achieved, but from my teaching background I know how important it is to reflect and learn from your mistakes. I also want to dispel this nasty rumour that everything goes well in farming and you’re the only one getting things wrong! It happens to us all, I just hope that my mistakes can help you in your farming journey or at least give you something to laugh at!