Victor Chestnutt is not afraid of trying new ventures and, together with his wife and son, is determined to stay in farming for the long haul. Barbara Collins visits the north coast of Ireland to find out more.
Beef and sheep farmer Victor Chesnutt needs to be able to juggle many plates. Running a mixed livestock farm on the north coast of Ireland and balancing his role as deputy president of the Ulster Farmers Union is a challenge but, thanks to the help of his family, he combines farming with politics.
Predominantly a beef and sheep farm, they have also branched out into dairying eight years ago following the return of his son David to the farm and there are now two separate businesses running on their unit.
The land is near the rocky Giant’s Causeway, Co Antrim, which means the landscape is also an issue when it comes to what to farm.
The Chestnutts own a total of 110 hectares (270 acres), a mixture of owned and rented contracts, and run it as a family.
Victor, who spent a year studying at Greenmount Agricultural College before returning home full-time in 1978 at the age of 26, says: “Our family has been here for at least four generations.
“I suppose I never really wanted to do anything but farm. My father ran suckler cows and, like all farmers of his generation, he was able to make ends meet but the 120 acres wouldn’t have kept me.
“He never borrowed any money and never built any sheds, but was never in debt. By the time I came along, I think it was easier to get advice on grant aid and to organise loans, so right away I started expanding and developing the farm.”
Victor’s father always had a strong church vocation, wanting to spend time visiting people who were sick or lonely.
So, when he reached 60 he let Victor take over the farm to pursue his pastoral work more while the business became a focus for growth.
“I started to introduce sheep and build sheds as well as getting the ground into better productive shape. There was just one little shed on the farm until then, so I took out a loan and did one project at a time. I had to do a lot of fencing and reseeding as well,” says Victor.
He credits the local beef and sheep advisor from the Department of Agriculture with giving him the information he needed to take on those projects.
“You got a loan. You did the work. You got a certain amount of Grant Aid which covered maybe half the cost. And you did a lot of the work yourself, which helped a bit too.”
Shortly after taking over the farm, Victor realised Texels were bringing good money in the 1980s following visits to the abbatoir.
He established his own flock and eventually became Northern Ireland’s representative on the Texel Sheep Society Board of the UK as well as running one of the largest herds in the country.
Continuing with his father’s suckler herd comprising Aberdeen-Angus cows crossed with Charolais bulls, he also explored the pedigree market with beef alongside the sheep.
“At school I can vividly remember making a scrapbook of pedigree bulls. The interest was there from an early age. It is either a healthy hobby or a disease if you are critical.
“It is something you get really interested in to improve the quality of stock and there is a buzz going to shows and doing well,” says Victor.
The easy-calving nature of Charolais prompted him to begin breeding bulls for other farmers running suckler herds.
“Nowadays we don’t go to shows with the main pedigree as you have to feed them a lot of expensive meal to compete and it’s not doing the animal good.
“Our breeding policy didn’t go down any but our feeding and sales policy has changed. We now run our own sales and rear our bulls more commercially.”
After deciding to carry out all work in-house, one of Victor’s main investments has been increasing livestock numbers.
“We still do our own slurry except at spring and we do our own silage. I used to be able to buy new tractors, but the prices scare me now so any machinery bought these days tends to be second-hand.”
The new dairy unit has also been a significant investment. It was Victor’s son David who convinced him to go into dairy – a move which he was unsure about.
“We talked about whether the farm would support the two of us and realised we needed to diversify and dairy cows seemed like a viable option,” says Victor. “We invested £188,000 in the new unit through a loan and I got him started with some stock.”
The breed of dairy cow they favour is a Montbeliarde Holstein cross.
This herd currently numbers 175, including cows and heifers. Milking takes place in their purpose-built parlour where the annual yield is one million litres, sold to LacPatrick Dairy.
Calving starts in mid-September and continues through winter, with most calves born by the end of April.
“The dairy is completely in David’s name. It is run as a separate business from a different yard, although it is only 500 yards away and they are on the same farm.”
While both farm enterprises are doing well, one recent setback has been the loss of a large parcel of rented land.
“We took some land on an estate near to the Giant’s Causeway. We had Blackface ewes on the land but the estate was sold, so we lost 100 acres of hill farm, 135 acres of sand hills, 15 acres of silage and 15 of grazing, all in one fell swoop.
“We had to cut the cross-bred sheep down and the commercial suckler cows. We also stopped rearing calves off the dairy herd.”
These days Victor farms more Blackface sheep than Texels, crossing the former with Bluefaced Leicester rams to produce a Mule lamb which goes on to do well at shows and sales.
“We fatten our wether lambs without meal and rear them all on grassland but we had to reduce stock numbers to 80. Still, they are giving a return with winter grazing and no expensive meal.”
The Texel sheep start lambing at the beginning of February and most are usually done by the middle of March, before the Blackface ewes start lambing in April.
Their Texel ram sales start at the end of August and run until they sell their male lambs at end of September.
Victor also runs a local co-operative farmers group called Causeway Coast Quality Lamb, which has been running for the past 25 years.
“Sheep numbers have gone from about 15,000-20,000 lambs per year down to about 10,000. We try to achieve 21-22kg deadweight carcases when finishing young wether lambs and sell to either the Dunbia group or Irish Country Meats, Navan, in the Republic of Ireland.”
Bulls are sold at Victor’s own sale at the local mart and he sells 15-20 every spring.
“Anything which is not up to standard is beefed off. For example, if a cow doesn’t go into calf. We would sell quite a lot of culled pedigree cows.”
The family run about 60 spring-calving suckler cows, a mixture of pedigree Charolais, Aberdeen-Angus and British Blues, supplying farmers, abbatoirs and the marts.
“We still hold the record price for Aberdeen-Angus in Northern Ireland at 7,600gns and we had another record in Ballymena when a fat beef cow sold for 2,155gns.”
Although stock bulls are bought-in, they do not buy any females and instead prefer to be as self-sufficient as possible.
“Fertility is not an issue and we run bulls with the cows we cross-breed. The feeding is hopefully right so, although we know other farmers who have a real issue with fertility, thankfully we don’t.”
Herd health is an area of focus for Victor and Daniel and the pair are working to reduce use of antibiotics.
“We prefer to use as little intervention as possible. We think it is better for the animal and also less expensive. We are also looking at the ventilation in the sheds and have opened them up to let the air in. We think this helps.
“When we were new to dairying we were wondering what to expect, but we have found they only problem is keeping their feet right.
“Moving from sucklers to dairy cows has definitely meant more work. It is not hard work, but it is constant.
“As they say, you keep a lot more men on the road but cows are efficient animals. My wife Carol does a lot of the milking and sometimes we wonder about the suckler cow industry’s future, but we will stick with it for now.”
Ulster Farmers Union
Outside of the farm, Victor was appointed as the deputy president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union last May.
“I didn’t go looking for it,” he says. “I didn’t need it but I let my name go forward. I love helping people and I love seeing farmers getting a better lot in life.
“It frustrates me how the Department of Agriculture has turned into a regulatory body, not an advisory one. It seems to be mixed up in many sectors. I got a lot of good advice down the years but now people now seem to be petrified of people from the Department coming to the farm.
The Chestnutts are believes in the philosophy of taking things one day at a time on-farm, although they are working to ensure the farm continues to enjoy a secure, productive future. "Every few years, we look at the farm to see if it is working", he says. Plans include more environmental improvements to help the next generation farm their lands.
Victor adds: “We want to leave the land better for the next generation. We are also taking advantage of a farm business development grant to move meal storage out of sheds into meal bins.
“It will free up the shed for something else. The only thing we can be certain of at the moment is uncertainty. This is definitely not a time for change. Brexit means it is time to sit tight, suck it and see. We may well have to be open to change but I am still quite positive.”