In this week’s Farmer Focus segment, That’s Farming speaks to Ross Murray. The NI sheep and suckler farmer discusses his earliest farming memories, barriers preventing his farm’s growth and expansion and how he feels there is a “real risk” to traditional, small family-run farms.
When Ross Murray was younger, he “pretty much looked at farming as a chore; something I had no other choice but to do”.
But now, the family’s suckler and sheep farm is a form of escapism for the 28-year-old full-time civil servant.
He told That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane: “As I grew older, I realised that it teaches you so many important lessons such as responsibility and work ethic.”
“It is also a great way of life, and you are part of a large community.”
For centuries, farming has been a “major” tradition on both sides of the Magheralin, Co. Down native’s family.
“I am able to safely say that I am a seventh-generation farmer, and we have family records back to the 1840s, but we have likely been farming from before that.”
“My grandfather Murray purchased Beech Tree Farm in 1987 as a wedding present for my parents. The Murray family has been in the local area for over 120 years.”
NI sheep and suckler farmer
Ross’ passion for sheep farming stemmed from his time at his nanna Patterson’s farm. He has fond memories as a child of catching lambs to tail them with her.
“She has a wealth of knowledge of sheep and cattle farming. She is part of that old school farming generation where they did everything themselves, such as building sheds etc.”
“Also, she bought my brother and I our first cows, Rosie (Simmental) and Daisy (Charolais).”
“When we were younger, mum took us to marts nearly every day of the week. She was always dealing in cattle and calves.”
“I have great memories of mum filling the boot of our Isuzu Jeep up with dropped calves,” he laughed.
“One of my other memories is helping my neighbour Davy bring in ‘wee bales’ of hay. If anything could put someone off farming quickly, then it is ‘wee bales’,” he added.
His family farm has always been home to a sheep and suckler-beef enterprise.
His father hailed from a predominately beef background, while his mother comes from a sheep farming background, so when they got married and moved to the farm, they intertwined both systems.
They currently have 160 breeding ewes, four tups, and 60 cattle (includes 12 sucklers and 1 stockbull), with all family members having off-farm employment.
His father, Derek, is a full-time diesel mechanic and his mother, Sharon, runs a small business part-time.
Ross’ other brother, Scott, is a full-time agricultural contractor and runs his business from their yard, employing three workers.
“So, unfortunately, as it currently stands, farming full-time at our home farm would not be feasible if any of us took a wage from it.”
Beech Tree Farm Commercials
The Murrays farm 90-acres in total, a mix of owned and rented land, and are part of the Farm Quality Assurance Scheme.
Their flock comprises Charollais and Texel-cross ewes with a pedigree Charollais and Texel ram, while their suckler herd consists of Limousin, Belgian Blue and Simmental breeding females. In addition, they also purchase dropped calves and weanlings annually to maintain cattle numbers.
They have been farming these sheep breeds for over 30 years and keep twenty-five ewe lambs annually as replacements.
“We picked these types of cross-bred ewes as you get height and body length from the Charollais and then excellent carcase quality from the Texel.”
His parents have been steadily building up their flock for the past thirty years.
“Mum would be the one with the real eye for good quality tups and ewes; she would be very picky. Meanwhile, dad has to go along with it,” he laughed.
“I have picked up a lot from both my parents but on picky top-quality stock and ensuring that your flock has desirable traits to ensure maternal instincts, grades and prolificacy.”
They aim to lamb in early March to ensure they can turn out in late April to coincide with the grass growth curve. Furthermore, they creep feed while lambs are still inside to supplement them but gradually reduce this when they turn the flock out to spring grass.
They strive to have their first batch of fat lambs – target grade: U – away to ABP in Lurgan by July. Besides, they sell their lighter lambs as stores from late August as grass growth starts to tail off.
“These go to Markethill Mart and are always in high demand as they are a good solid lamb.”
The Murrays lamb indoors; their ewes come in from winter grazing around the second week of January to be fed high-quality silage and concentrates.
They use Provita ProVitaMin drench, ad-lib Top Flock pre tup buckets, and flush on high-quality grass to achieve a compact lambing period.
They prefer to keep ewe lambs as replacements which allows them to “know the breeding behind them and pick the traits we prefer”.
“This results in our tups having to be regularly changed. Ideally, we would not keep a tup for any longer than two years to prevent interbreeding.”
They strive to focus on moderately tall sheep with good body length and conformity. They have been breeding from their bloodlines for many years, ensuring that ewes are maternal and prolific.
On the other hand, cattle, particularly, sucklers, have always been his father’s focus and preference.
“He likes Simmentals for their temperament, Belgian Blues for their quality calves and Limousins as a solid all-rounder. I am very fond of Simmentals as they are easy to work with.”
“Our sucklers always have good quality calves, which is reflected in the prices we get for them at the mart or in the factory.”
“We endeavour to finish all our suckler calves regardless if they are bullocks or heifers.
“We buy in dairy-bred dropped calves. I am not a fan of the dairy-bred beef cattle; they eat as much as good ones, but the quality is never there.”
“We would sell these mostly as stores. I believe that feeding will never make up for breeding.”
Recently, they privately purchased a top-quality breeding heifer (BB X LM) from James Alexander (JALEX Livestock) in-calf to Elderberry Galahad (EBY).
“I am keen to introduce new bloodlines into the herd and potentially start and replace some of our older sucklers with higher standard hybrid cows.”
“I firmly believe that good cattle will always demand a premium price at the point of sale; they just naturally catch your eye.”
He also hopes to mirror this on the sheep front by establishing a small flock of pedigree Charollais and Texel ewes to cross with the respective tup to produce ewe lambs for replacements and sell as breeders.
“I would not mind also trying my hand at breeding some good commercial hybrid tups,” he added.
Satisfaction and challenges
For the 28-year-old, the most enjoyable aspect of farming is “just getting out and walking the land”.
“Rain, hail or snow, there is just something about seeing your stock turned out and checking them. It brings me a lot of peace and contentment; it is also a nice escape from a stressful day job.”
He listed weather and controlling illness are the most challenging aspects of farming.
Firstly, he said farmers are “constantly in a never-ending battle” against the elements.
“If you have a late spring, then you will struggle to have enough grass for your ewes and lambs or an early winter, and you are counting how many bales you have and hoping for an early spring.”
“Another difficult aspect of farming is controlling illness. Most of these animals represent a significate time and financial investment, so the last thing you want them to do is to get sick or die.”
“I am sure that most farmers will have experienced problems controlling and preventing pneumonia; it goes through cattle like wildfire. You come out the other end with dead stock or beasts that have been severely knocked back.”
However, he said no doubt that farming is a “stressful, relentless and isolated” job, which takes its toll on farmers.
“That is why I am glad to see mental health is coming more to the fore. There is support out there from Rural Support NI, the Ulster Farmers’ Union or your GP.”
Successful sheep farming
In Murray’s eyes, the key to being a successful farmer, in general, is patience and a willingness to work.
“It is not an easy path by any means; there can be more downs than ups, particularly with sheep.”
“As a wise man once said: if you have livestock, you will have dead stock. This is definitely true with sheep!”
“If there is a new and innovative way to die, they will soon find it. You cannot take it personally and must accept that some things are just outside of your control.”
“Some years, everything just seems to work against you. You have to have strong resilience against it all, which is no mean feat,” the NI sheep and suckler farmer added.
“Watching your flock develop year on year is always great. I love picking out my ewe lambs each year and watching how they mature and the type of ewe they become.”
“Everyone has their own notions about sheep and have preferences of breeds, traits and shapes.”
“Lambing season is also always a highlight of the year; there is always something about seeing new life and the cycle starting all over again. It is not without its challenges, of course, but that is part of life,” he added.
Advice and reflection
His advice to aspiring sheep farmers is this: “shut up, listen and watch”.
He said farming knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, and there are “always plenty of lessons to be learned from the old hands”.
Also, he stressed it is important that you carve out your own niche, such as buying a different breed that traditionally is not kept on the farm to experiment with.
“My parents have always been a great encouragement to me, and I have no doubt that other farming parents will be the same. They will want you to gain interest in the sector, so they will give you some rope to run with,” he added.
“If I could turn back the clock, I think I would have gone to an agricultural college such as Greenmount or Harper Adams to complete an agriculturally focused qualification.”
“Since our farm is relatively small in the grand scheme of things, it just is not viable to make a living off it.”
“Therefore, I was always conscious that I would have to find a career away from home to support myself and keep the farm for nights and weekends.”
“Sheep farming is a numbers game. The past two years have seen good prices for lambs, but when you consider the ever-increasing costs of producing your lambs, most farms would not be turning a huge profit, particularly if you are taking a wage from it.”
Growing and expanding the farm: barriers
Ross has a burning desire to keep the tradition alive for future generations to enjoy. Growing and expanding the farm is a long-term goal, but several factors currently prevent that.
“The main one is the availability of land. Our farm rents a good proportion of our land near the farm, but the land is in extremely high demand. Sheep and cattle farmers financially can only afford to pay around £100-£120/acre in Northern Ireland.”
“Many are now being priced out of the market by large dairy farms and anaerobic digesters, who are prepared well above the going rate.”
He feels there is a “real risk” to traditional, small family-run farms in Northern Ireland due to ever-increasing producing costs, the future of CAP payments in NI, consumer sentiment towards farm produce and lack of succession on farms.
“We are now seeing many small family farms going out of business for varying reasons and being swallowed up by larger farms.”
“Some may call that progress, but I feel that it is a travesty and the erosion of a proud and long-standing social history on these islands.”
Future of farming in Northern Ireland
However, the NI sheep and suckler farmer said there is cause for hope with “many more” younger people becoming interested in farming, as seen on social media, and they “must be supported”.
“If we want our farms to produce to a high standard, then it is only fair that farmers get paid a fair price for their produce or are supplemented through enhanced payments to ensure that careers in agriculture and farming are viable instead of being looked at as a part-time hobby.”
He believes this puts an onus on the government to step up to the mark. He said there is a “real shift” to focus payments on environmental aspects, which is part of a wider move in world politics.
“Every farmer wants the best for their land, nature and the countryside as a whole. However, it cannot place a burden on farming families who are already operating on thin margins and penalise them for trying to scrape a living.”
“Our government is happy to make trade deals to import low cost, low standard food from half the world away. Consumers are happy to turn a blind eye and buy it, while they ask local farms to adhere to high standards,” he concluded.
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