It was not so much a case of gritting his teeth as gritting car parks which gave Jim Beary the boost he needed to be able to win his first farm tenancy and start farming on his own. Neil Ryder visits Stafford to find out more.
Grit and determination paved the way for Staffordshire farmer Jim Beary to take over the tenancy of his first farm and establish thriving contract calf-rearing and New Zealand-style sheep enterprises.
Such was his desire to succeed, the methods he used to help him get there saw him win the New Entrant award at last year’s British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
While he was brought up on a Lancashire farm, his father is a farm manager and his mother a retired teacher, there was no prospect of a family farm to take over.
Jim therefore had to work his own way to achieving his ambition three years ago when he took over the tenancy of the Staffordshire County Council-owned Glen Farm, Aston, Stafford.
Glen Farm is a former dairy farm covering 34 hectares (85 acres) of relatively heavy land all down to long-term and permanent grass.
Jim also rents a further 49ha (120 acres) under various agreements split into three blocks, plus a little land for wintering sheep.
Jim draws Basic Payment Scheme and Entry Level Stewardship support for Glen Farm, but not on the additional rented land.
The farm is now home to a Blade Farming contract calf-rearing enterprise and a sheep enterprise based on Aberfield cross New Zealand Romney ewes put to Abermax tups for prime lamb production. He is one of the first farmers in the UK to work with this cross.
Jim says: “I suppose I always wanted to farm, but I was just unsure how to do it. After leaving school, I went to Harper Adams University to take an HND in agriculture with one-year placement on a pig and arable farm in Oxfordshire, as well as doing some harvest work.
“Then I left college and worked as a sprayer operator on an all-arable farm in Essex, before returning to Harper Adams to complete an honours degree in agriculture with marketing.”
His next move was a year-long, self-funded trip to New Zealand, working on a dairy, sheep, and beef farm.
“I was impressed by the way New Zealand farmers managed grassland. The sheep were all New Zealand Romneys with wide use of Rissington composite tups – a system very close to my own system here in Staffordshire, developed in conjunction with Innovis.”
Jim returned to England in 2005 and was determined to make a start in sheep farming, but unable to find sufficient land to establish a sheep flock, so he rented 8ha (20 acres) to run a 60-pig outdoor breeding sow unit.
Rent for the land was covered by money earned driving a van in the evening and he started selling his Ribble Valley Pork through local farmers’ markets.
“The pig enterprise worked well for about three years, then feed prices virtually doubled and margins dropped sharply. The owner of a local property company knew I was struggling financially and offered me some winter work gritting car parks.
“This was a turning point. I built up the gritting contract business over four years and from it gained enough capital to apply for and secure a 10-year farm business tenancy from Staffordshire County Council for Glen Farm.
“The council offering the farm with a fixed rent rather than putting it out to tender was a big help and the fact I was from outside Staffordshire presented no problems.
“The success of the gritting business was a key factor in gaining the tenancy. It showed I could run and develop a business and the income from gritting was enough to cover the rent. Using essentially the same business plan, I was able to get a loan from the bank.”
Jim moved into Glen Farm just more than three years ago. He had dismissed the possibility of dairying, as the existing dairy facilities would have needed major investment and then he doubted the farm was large enough to make dairying viable. He also looked at indoor pigs, but felt set-up costs were too high.
With limited funds for the first year, he arranged for a Welsh farmer to contract-graze sheep and use the farm building for heifer-rearing.
This income was topped up with sales of silage and some haylage.
“The former dairy buildings were stripped out to make them suitable for heifer rearing, together with the addition of Yorkshire boarding for ventilation. With the sheds being used by cattle all-year-round, I needed an outdoor sheep system which would be easy-to-manage, produce prime lambs from grass and, importantly, be cheap to operate.”
As capital became available, Jim set about gradually building his own sheep flock.
“I had worked with New Zealand Romneys in New Zealand and, after looking at some British native breeds, felt the Romneys were best suited to this farm. In New Zealand, I had also worked with cross-bred ewes bred out of New Zealand Romneys and seen the quality of lambs produced when these were mated to a specialist terminal sire similar to the Abermax.
“I bought New Zealand Romneys to be mated to Aberfield tups and Aberfield cross New Zealand Romney females. The Abermax was chosen as the terminal meat sire combining ease of lambing with good growth rates.”
The sheep remain outside all-year-round and are managed on a paddock grazing system. During winter, they are tightly stocked on two- to three-day paddocks, which are grazed hard and if managed well, ensure good grass for lambs in spring.
The system was successfully trialled by Eblex and SAC in South West England, and more recently trialled on three farms in Northumberland. Ewes are set-stocked at lambing and so far, Jim says the system is working well.
Sheep graze grass only, with just feed buckets and some fodder beet around lambing. Ewes scan at about 190 per cent lambs over ewes tupped and lamb from the end of March into April, with ewe lambs lambing in May. Finished lambs are sold deadweight going at about 40-44kg liveweight, 20-22kg carcase weight grading and selling from July onwards.
The other major development came after a visit to Blade Farming when Jim was asked if he would be interested in contract-rearing calves for the company. The Aberdeen-Angus cross calves bred out of dairy herds remain the property of Blade Farming, with Jim providing labour, feed, bedding and housing.
After adapting a building for calves, the first batch arrived last October. The business is expected to put about 850 calves per year through the unit in batches of 120 on an all-in all-out system.
Glen farm is part of Staffordshire County Council's farm estate and was taken on by Jim in 2012.
Weaned Aberdeen-Angus cross calves taken on as part of the farm's contract calf-rearing sideline.
“So far, calf-rearing is going well and I may well adapt more of the buildings for calf-rearing so we can double throughput. I will stay with the present enterprises of sheep and contract calf-rearing for the foreseeable future and have no plans to introduce cattle here.
“With cattle, we would make no more margin than our existing enterprises, our sheep will outperform cattle on grass, plus this area is a hotspot for bovine TB which is a big disease risk.
“Early on, the possibility of a small farm shop and butchery was considered, but this is now firmly on hold because of the commitments involved. Meanwhile, I retain my winter contract gritting work, which is a solid source of income. It also works well as our sheep shearing contractor is one of the gritter drivers during winter.
“We will remain all grass with some improvement work. No fertiliser is used, but we have tried spreading digestate from an anaerobic digester and the effect has been amazing. We are looking at sowing some plantain as an additional sheep feed.”
This year, single lambs are averaging 430g/day growth and twins 360g/day. The slow start to spring and summer led to less grass at the start, but the anaerobic waste and warmer temperatures have changed this now with lamb daily liveweight gains improving.
“I still expect to achieve a net margin of about £900/ha before deducting any personal wages. With calf-rearing, assuming 850 calves per year, it should bring an estimated income of £33,500.”
Jim runs the farm on his own with the help of part-time and casual labour. Away from the farm, he is keen on fishing and, until about 18 months ago, played rugby.
“County council-owned farms provide an important first staging post for new entrants to farming and, unfortunately, are becoming fewer, as many are sold to help local government finances. Staffordshire is one of the better councils in retaining its farming estate.
“In the private sector, many potential starter farms are taken by neighbouring farmers able to offer higher rents than most new entrants can afford by spreading costs over a greater acreage. This is understandable, but does greatly reduce the number of affordable farms available to new entrants.”
If Jim’s business plan is on target, the farm should have paid off all outstanding finance within the next three years, and he hopes to be making a six-figure gross profit year-on-year.
“This is a good starter farm, but I would hope to be able to move on to a larger farm in the future. So far, everything is going to plan.”
Entries are still open for this year’s New Entrant: Against the Odds award, as part of the British Farming Awards.
This award recognises the challenges new entrants into agriculture face when there is no security of a family farm. It welcomes entries from farmers who have been in the industry for no more than three years and who can demonstrate resilience, tenacity and determination in an attempt to pursue their own farm business from scratch.
Winning the accolade last year, Jim Beary is hopeful the recognition will help him continue building his business.
Jim says: “I was nominated for the British Farming Awards New Entrant and had to provide information on how I got into running my farm business.
“Apart from being extremely pleased to win the award, my landlord Staffordshire County Council was also very pleased with this achievement. This will, hopefully, help me when I am ready to move to a larger farm.
“Winning the award has also helped me make many new contacts within the industry which should be useful to me in the future.”