A move to the uplands has brought new challenges and opportunities for one farmer. Chloe Palmer catches up with Jim Beary to find out more.
Growing up as a the son of a farm manager in Lancashire, Jim Beary always wanted to farm.
His determination to succeed in his ambition has seen him build up his sheep flock from nothing to 800 ewes in less than seven years and a further expansion is imminent.
Two years ago he arrived at Ughill Hall Farm, in the Peak District, some five miles north west of Sheffield city centre. It seems despite arriving in the year of the ‘Beast from the East’ followed by the driest summer on record, he is thriving in his new home.
Prior to his current tenancy, Mr Beary had been a county council tenant in Staffordshire since 2012 and he went to unusual lengths in his keenness to secure the farm.
He says: “I thought it would look better if I had a partner when I went to the interview as I was single at the time.
“So I lined up one of my friend’s girlfriends to play the role but then bottled it at the last minute and went to the interview on my own. I still managed to get the farm.”
He admits to turning up at the start of the Staffordshire tenancy with very little. He had recently given up a retail business with his mother, rearing and selling freerange pigs as the market collapsed when the recession hit.
“I managed to get back on my feet and found some gritting work for private businesses around Manchester and, from this I built up some capital ahead of moving to Staffordshire.
“When I first took on the farm I took some sheep on tack and also made lots of hay to sell. When I wanted to buy my first sheep, the bank matched the capital I had raised.
“In autumn 2013 I bought some Aberfield ewe lambs and lambed them the following spring. I also reared calves for Blade Farming and by the time I left the farm to move to Ughill, I had built up numbers to 650 ewes and 240 calves,” Mr Beary explains.
The opportunity to take on the tenancy at Ughill came up in 2017 and so Mr Beary and his partner, Julia, lambed the ewes in the spring before moving to the new farm in June. The couple were married shortly afterwards at the beautiful High Bradfield church across the valley and Mrs Beary now works full-time at the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, as well as helping on-farm.
“We love it around here. Everyone wants to help and it is really friendly. And the views are much better,” says Mr Beary.
He has retained the Aberfield sheep despite the testing weather conditions in this part of the Peak District and has also introduced some Highlander and Cheviots into the mix.
He says: “I grew up on a pig farm and it was all about genetics. We would not have dreamed of just going and buying pigs from a market.
“So when I first selected my sheep, I wanted to go with something with some science behind it.
“I like what Innovis is doing and I select my sheep on the basis of estimated breeding value [EBVs] for maternal traits, litter size, fast growing lambs and the ability to hold condition.
“We have recently bought some Highlander ewes from Sandringham which we hope will prove to be consistent and easy care.”
Assessing the performance of the farm and then making improvements wherever possible is Mr Beary’s aim. By weighing lambs every three weeks from birth to finishing he can understand precisely which elements in the system work and those which could be better.
“Because we know which lambs are growing well and we do regular egg counts, we can target the lambs which are not gaining enough weight for worming. We have noticed the lambs sired by the Romney have a very low worm burden,” Mr Beary says.
He believes the Cheviots, although hardy and excellent mothers, are not as prolific as the composite breeds and he proposes to gradually phase out the ewes by crossing them to a Romney or Highlander sire, because he says for his business, ‘it is about producing meat’.
Alongside genetics, grassland management is a key focus for Mr Beary and he has adopted a system of rotational grazing.
“It is very much the dairy system we are trying to emulate here but we will never be in a position to grow as much grass as we only have sheep at the moment.
“When we first started here we were probably using about half the grass and now we are at 80 per cent utilisation.
“We use a plate meter every three weeks to measure the grass. We aim to go into a field at 2,000kg per hectare and graze it down to 1,600kg/ha.
“We use a software package called Farmax which helps us budget how much grass we have. It matches the demand of the flock to the available grass and grass growth rates and tells us the appropriate stocking rate to maximise grazing efficiency,” Mr Beary explains.
He is keen to increase suckler cow numbers from the current four heifers he has on-farm as he believes this will enable him improve grassland management.
“I think if we brought cows into the equation, we could do better still. The fitting on a new water system with a solar pump from a spring to supply all the fields will be a game changer for us,” he says.
Mr Beary has begun splitting the large fields with permanent electric fencing into paddocks of about 2-3ha (five to seven acres) at a cost of 90p per metre.
He says with the system he has chosen, he can fence a 12ha (30 acre) field in a day. He plans to divide all the farm’s fields in this way and reseed some of the older worn out swards.
“At the moment we have to winter the ewes away but we have taken some more land on across the other side of Sheffield and we also plan to grow some swedes here to supplement the grazing so hopefully this will no longer be necessary,” Mr Beary adds.
Raising the pH and the nutrient indices across the grassland will help to increase grass production, he says, pointing to the calcium lime still visible across the field.
“Our phosphate and potash levels were very low and this is a hungry farm but I hope by spreading the manure from the dairy calves we will be able to address this. My next job is to aerate the fields with an aerator and a chain harrow behind,” he says.
Blood testing the ewes showed a copper deficiency because it is locked up by the molybdenum in the soil, so Mr Beary gives a half rate copper bolus to all ewes before tupping and lambing and he says this has ‘made quite a difference’.
Now he is sending the first lambs in at 12 weeks old weighing 44kg and all the lambs not retained as replacements are sold finished from the farm by November.
He sells to Tesco and hopes this arrangement will help to ‘future-proof’ his business in the uncertain years ahead.
A recent opportunity to rent a further 59ha (145 acres) to the south-east of the city means Mr Beary can expand sheep numbers further.
He says: “The new block of land will allow us to finish the lambs from forage and reduce costs and increase flock size but there is only so much I can do before I would need another labour unit.
“I would rather stay as a oneman business and outsource the gritting work and use contractors for some of the big jobs to allow me to concentrate on running both the farms.”
With so much uncertainty around the industry after Brexit, Mr Beary admits he is ‘worried’ but he has a clear strategy for the future.
“It is impossible to plan at the moment as the situation is constantly changing. So I think I need to concentrate on the things I can control, such as improving my efficiency and try not to worry too much about the things I can do nothing about, such as politics.
“We cannot produce lambs the way a lowland farm would but we could potentially grow more grass even though we cannot make the season longer or increase the temperature.
“I know consumers are becoming more aware of the way their food is produced so I am bearing this in mind when I make decisions about how we do things here.
“I want to produce a premium product which benefits the consumer and offers environmental benefits such as improved water quality, healthy soil and a beautiful landscape. Ultimately, I want to be a price maker, not a price taker.”