Brexit-proofing farm businesses was top of the agenda at last week’s Northern Farming Conference at Hexham Auction Mart. Lauren Dean reports...
Farmers must not be afraid to change their farming systems and remember higher productivity was not necessarily the answer to greater profitability.
North Yorkshire beef and sheep farmer Neil Heseltine of Hill Top Farm, Malham, told how a decision to cut his 400-strong Swaledale enterprise in half enabled a bigger profit, virtually no use of concentrates and a reduced impact on the environment.
The move stemmed from a look at the farm’s finances which found although the sheep enterprise was contributing three times that of the cattle, when broken down the profit came to only £478 – about 15 pence per hour.
Mr Heseltine’s Belted Galloways were, however, ’mooching around looking pretty and making the hills look pretty, doing their conservation job but also actually making a financial contribution to the business’.
The cattle lived outside all year round, needed little to no medical treatment and grew, at their own rate, to between four and five years old.
“Probably the most natural response would be to get rid of the sheep,” Mr Heseltine said. “But we feel it is important to use the hills to produce food and it is the production of that food that gives people a reason to be there.
“The cattle were showing us the way forward, so we felt we needed to replicate the lessons learned from the cattle enterprise and apply them to the sheep.
“And that was fundamentally to get the right breed in the right situation and allow them to exhibit their natural behaviour.”
Hill Top Farm kept 200 Swaledales but instead changed the way they were farmed, lambing them later in the year which resulted in healthier sheep and a greater diversity of plants and wildlife on the farm.
Since 2012, income from the sheep enterprise has halved – but profit over the last three years has been about 60 per cent up.
The farm’s reliance on subsidy has also reduced from 70 per cent to 40 per cent.
Mr Heseltine said: "Maximising production and maximising income is not necessarily the key driver to profitability.
“We feel we now have much more balance and therefore a more robust business which is more able to withstand the vagaries and the challenges of the farming life.”