Opinion: Bold decisions for young farming couple in Cornwall

This year will mark five years since we moved to Bohetherick Farm.

Will and I started farming at a pretty young age; we took on our National Trust tenancy at 21 while we were still studying for our degrees.

While this meant we were able to get a head start on other young farmers of our generation, having the sole responsibility of a livestock farm at such a young age was always going to be challenging. Our social lives within YFC had to be sacrificed for 4am starts, piles of paperwork and learning to balance the books.

The mainstay of our business has always been the suckler herd, but we felt it was necessary to develop other enterprises that would support the profitability of the farm without requiring much land. Alongside part-time jobs we also reared many beef calves from the dairies Will milked for.

On paper this always seemed quite attractive – no need for a cow, small space requirement and easy to budget input costs. It seemed like the perfect side-enterprise for our young business. However, if it really were that straightforward, everyone would be doing it.

As our acreage has grown and we have gained experience of running the business, we have learned a number of important lessons and made some errors of judgement along the way.

We have dabbled with just about every class of livestock except poultry and, after five years of trying to figure out what works best for us, we have come to the conclusion that we should stick to what we started with and what makes us the most money; suckler cows producing 12- to 15-month-old store cattle.

Just about everything else we have tried has tanked in one way or another, either through poor performance, volatile market returns, increase in feed prices or low market demand.

Perhaps one of our most spectacular farming muck-ups was my idea to develop a sheep enterprise. On paper it looked ideal; we had excess grass, a bit of cash and a buoyant lamb price, so off I trotted to market and bought a load of store lambs, hoping to finish them in eight weeks and make a quick profit. I’ll spare you the details, but the experience of selling fat lambs for less than what I paid as stores is not something I ever intend to repeat.

Having the children and feeling somewhat wiser as we come up to celebrating five years has prompted us to make some bold decisions. We have axed all the small enterprises – no more calves, sheep or pigs.

With two kids, I really don’t have the time or energy to develop the direct meat sales that I used to think would be the goose that laid the golden egg.

In addition, we are changing the focus of the suckler herd. When we first started, we felt strongly that we wanted to finish all our own cattle eventually and so we opted for Angus and Hereford stock bulls to put on our mostly Hereford-cross cows.

While these have been easy-calving, healthy and made excellent use of grass, our cashflow has meant we have always had to sell most of them as stores (admittedly this was not helped by the milk powder, cake and pig feed bills generated by the other enterprises).

We have rarely been pleased with the prices that the native stores made compared with their continental counterparts. Also, we really don’t have the infrastructure to deal with finishing cattle alongside the suckled calves. As such we have put our trusty Angus up for sale and he has been replaced by a Limousin.

We plan to buy another continental bull in the spring, but we will retain a Hereford bull to breed replacements. The next discussion we will need to have is what breed we will opt for. Will fancies a Charrolais, but I think another Limousin will be a better choice for our medium-sized cows.

The first five years of our farming career has been a roller coaster ride. There is nothing that beats the satisfaction of walking out onto the farm and seeing what we have built up.

I love the steady rhythm of work that changes through the seasons. There have also been some difficult times when animals haven’t performed well or an enterprise fails and we lose money.

As we look to the future and yet another changing of the goalposts with the new BPS coming into play next year, I hope the young farmer premium helps the next wave of new entrants to establish sustainable businesses and ride the inevitable speed bumps they will hit along the way.

Ironically, at the grand old age of 26, we will be considered too old to receive the top-up, as we have been farming for too long. Still, I’m sure the 39-year-olds who will qualify because they are finally handed the reins after completing a 20-year apprenticeship under their parents will use it to support their farms as they gain valuable experience. I’m not bitter about it, honestly, I’m not!

Jess and her husband Will run 75 suckler cows on an 80ha National Trust farm on the Devon/Cornwall border. They have two children, Edward and Lydia. Jess has a degree in rural business management and enjoys horse riding in her spare time.

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