Transition Farmer Update: Fergal Watson Faces Personnel Changes

A combination of retirements and soaring input costs has prompted beef and arable farmer Fergal Watson to take steps to meet key transition goals.

The Watson family – Fergal, his wife, Lucy, and daughter Eabha-Marie – farm 285ha spread over three farms near Cloughey on the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Watson’s main objectives are to restructure the cattle herd, improve business resilience and recruit staff.

See also: Staffing and Soil Health Key Transition Objectives for Suckler Livestock

These were highlighted as the impending retirement of a long-serving member of staff and rising input costs increased the pressure for change.

The staff member will leave in October after 44 years on the farm. Although the remaining employee still has more service at 48, he also plans to retire next year. Mr. Watson is concerned about the immediate and longer-term loss of manpower, which will increase pressure on workloads.

“There will only be two of us in the short term, so we have started to restructure the beef cattle to make the job more manageable,” he says.

Genetic change

Cattle are split between a suckler herd and purchased dairy breed feeders. In the suckler herd, the switch from Continental types to Stabilizer and Hereford genetics has already begun with the aim of using more docile and precocious animals.

This should make management easier, as animals coming out of Limousin can be more flighty, says Mr Watson.

More generally, a policy has been put in place to eliminate underperforming animals with the aim of upgrading the herd.

As part of this process, more carefully selected, home-bred replacements will be added to the herd.

For dairy breed finishers, the approach has been to downsize for the foreseeable future. Normally, the farm purchases about 50 to 70 dairy calves during the summer, but none were purchased this year.

The decision was made in part because calf prices and input costs were high, which weighed on potential margins. But reduced labor capacity has also been a key factor, with labor peaking during the fall and winter housing period.

Cover crops

Along with livestock management goals, the farm business has seen some changes this summer. For the first time, cover crops were planted in all arable fields.

Although there is no funding yet under environmental schemes, the benefits of cover crops have already been seen after some were planted last year.

The extra nutrients provided by overwintering crops resulted in a fertilizer reduction of about 30 to 35 units/acre, says Watson.

Despite the reduction in fertilizer, the farm produced its best crop of spring barley in the field after the cover crop.

Cover crops also benefit the soil structure and reduce the amount of moisture. This will facilitate access to land early next spring throughout the arable area, he says.

Benefits of Beans

Another success this year was the introduction of beans into the rotation. The crop grew well and the nitrogen requirement for the next crop was halved.

All protein from the beef cattle herd is now grown on-site, protecting the farm from soaring input costs.

However, plans to grow multi-species lawns were thwarted by the summer drought. It was pointless to sow seeds in moisture-free soil, so multi-species lawns will stand by.