Sarah Devlin-Stafford turned redundancy into an opportunity by utilising her previous experience to establish an innovative business, writes Catherina Cunnane.
The Alnwick, Northumberland native, who does not hail from an agricultural background but time on farms throughout her childhood, established SDS Livestock in April 2018.
Her passion for livestock and marts came to the fore when she held an office-based role in an engineering firm. “It was here that I first started dealing with farming customers properly.”
“I used to sit at my desk staring out the window at the local auction mart wishing I was there! It came to no surprise when I told my boss I was leaving to follow my dreams at the local mart.”
That took her to John Swan LTD as a livestock canvasser. “I remember my first day, head to toe in tweed and high heels. I was given a car key and told, ‘I’ll see you at 5 pm – go and find some stock’.”
“Induction over – I soon discovered stilettos were no longer appropriate!” she laughed.
She later became redundant but viewed the increasing popularity of farm-to-farm livestock sales in the UK as an ultimate opportunity.
“I used my 90 days’ gardening leave to plan my business, SDS Livestock.” explained Sarah who describes herself as “your leading lady in livestock”.
“I sell all types of stock and no customer is too small – every client is highly valued.”
The core of the business is deadweight marketing of Primestock. Sarah also has a DEFRA-licensed collection centre at the family farm for prime and store stock.
By having a collection centre available, it helps to reduce the carbon footprint of livestock collections, by enabling smaller lots of sheep from individual farms to be brought to the centre by vendors.
“Such lots of less than 100 are not economic for collection by large transport vehicles. This was limiting smaller farmers; it also helps them get on with day-to-day business.”
“They can drop the sheep off and not have to hang around waiting for the lorry.”
“When setting out my business plan, I discovered that agents actually get paid commission from most abattoirs, and with my ‘farmer head-on’, I couldn’t understand why other agents then charge the farmer.”
“So, I decided that I wouldn’t charge the farmer any extra for prime stock. Why pay for a service you can have for free?” said Sarah, who explained that she charges commission for farm-to-farm sales.
Every day is different and that’s what the entrepreneur enjoys most. Her mornings revolve around responding to emails and completing paperwork in her home-based office. “The collection centre is open most days, so I know who to expect to arrive with sheep.”
She explained that some farmers arrive as early as 6 am, while others are there just in time for the wagon.
“But there’s one thing I will say about the farmers I deal with and that is they’re all good craic and stay for a natter – once all the sheep are in and loaded.”
“Once the collection centre is washed and disinfected, I get ready to hit the road – this range from viewing to selecting stock ready for the store. Most farm appointments are booked in advance; however, this varies.” the livestock agent explained.
Her weekends can vary from helping out at home to catching up with paperwork. Sarah and her family fatten approximately 500 cattle and have in the region of 1,500 breeding ewes.
“I’ve always had a love for pedigree Suffolks and when the farmer married me, he knew that he also married the Suffolks.”
They farm 30 pedigree Suffolks – half of which are bred to Dutch Texel rams, while the remaining ewes as used for pedigree breeding purposes. “We produce the tups to be used on the commercial ewes, which are mostly Suffolk-crosses and Texel-crosses.”
Women in ag
Sarah conveyed that she was more eager to learn and prove herself, as someone who does not hail from an agricultural background. “I had found this more of a challenge, than being a woman in the industry.”
“In the beginning I struggled, thinking I wasn’t good enough in the industry, with my lack of background knowledge.”
“I believe I’m the only woman in the livestock agency field to operate independently with passion and strength as a driving force.”
“For long enough, I didn’t get the recognition that I thought I deserved. But now I’ve worked out that being positive and happy with the work I’ve achieved is all that matters.”
“If the farmers are happy at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. Everything else is a bonus!”
As SDS Livestock continues to reach new heights, Sarah will be seeking a like-minded, enthusiastic individual to join her in the future.
“I’m extremely grateful for where I am today – I have fantastic support from my family and friends and most of all my fabulous customers.”
“Follow your heart and go for it – that’s my motto. When I set out on my journey, I was worried about what people would think. The people I worried about aren’t worth my time.”
“My work life is super hectic and busy, but I’m busy doing something I love. Never look back and keep ploughing forward,” she concluded.
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