Farm Of The Week: Farmer shuns hi-tech to do it his way

ACCORDING to the office wallahs, Dales farmers should be specialising and computerising and diversifying and generally doing more research and more sums.

According to EBLEX, every lamb should come with a print-out predicting its potential yield. According to Natural England, the future for the hills is to produce less meat and more dry stone walling. According to all the theorists, the key to survival is to calculate profit and loss on every activity and eliminate the negative.

The Craven Cattle Marts Stockperson of 2011, according to the record of prizes won and prices achieved at Skipton Auction Mart, ignores all these rules.

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Robert Crisp produces the sort of stock other farmers want by ear and by eye. He gave up trying to get into Uplands Entry Level Stewardship because he could not get the points without changing the way he farms. And he has never used a computer.

Speaking in a shed holding a variety of animals from his three tiers of sheep production and Holstein Friesian cattle herd, he says: “I’ll lose money on some. I could spend a lot of time working out which. But you can’t suddenly get rid of them and replace them with something else. My view of farming is, you go through the ups and downs and come out the other side if you are doing it right. Looking at lots of figures is just a way to get depressed. I’d rather be getting on with the job.”

Most livestock markets run some sort of a show of the stock of the day before the auctions. Judges are appointed from whoever is available and sponsors chip in a few quid in prizes to add interest to the day and to the sales. The champion does not always fetch the best price but both title and the price are measures of respect for the stock and CCM gives points for both in its records of performance.

Robert had no idea he was even in the running – “We’ve just done what we do” – and offers thanks to the auctioneers and office staff who kept the records for him.

Their records show he picked up two championships in last year’s Craven Dairy Auctions – the first in March, with a second-calver cow sold for £2,100. In the first sale of October, two of his heifers took both championship and reserve honours and the top prices too, at £2,080 and £2,100.

He also got most points for prime lambs – butchers’ lambs – although actually he only takes a few of those to Skipton, to showcase his end products. Most of his are sold deadweight, through an abattoir agent he has dealt with for years. But he sells most of his breeding sheep at Skipton.

He breeds Swaledales and buys in Bluefaced Leicester tups to make Mules from some of the Swaledale ewes. He has paid 500 guineas for a Bluefaced ram and 2,500 for a good Swaledale but is not interested in the six-figure competitions. He gets his money back by selling Mule gimmers – virgin ewes – and crossing some of them with Texel/Beltex tups to make lambs which go for meat, along with spares from the Swaledale and Mule flocks. A lot of farmers specialise in just one of these tiers of production but this is the way the Crisps have always done it – except, over the years, the preferred terminal sire has changed from Suffolk to Texel to Texel/Beltex cross, in response to lessons learned at the ringside at Skipton. There is no doubt Beltex-sired lambs get the best prices, says Robert, but pure Beltex sires make lambs which grow too slowly on his land.

He is 56. He and his brother, Carlton, run Nelson Farm at Calton, between Gargave and Malham. They grew up there after their father, Archie, took the tenancy on house and 100 acres in 1959, and hung on in after he died when they were teenagers. Calton used to be a three-farm village but theirs is the only one left intact. They increased their holding to 300 acres as the others were broken up and they have grazing rights on 300 acres of high moorland. It is a beautiful location but they have done well to bring up five children between them, in neighbouring houses on this wet upland territory. A sister, Ailsa Rushton, farms with her son in the same dale, at Wigglesworth, and their mother lives near her.

Most of the next generation are off on their own paths. Robert’s youngest, against the odds, is studying maths at Loughborough. But his eldest, Natalie, 25, still works on the farm when she is not off shearing – as she currently is, in New Zealand, for the fifth year running. Robert and his brother still do some contract shearing as well as their own.

Until summer 2009, the other half of the farm was dairy. They sold quite a lot of heifers, so the milking herd fluctuated between 60 and 120, but they still produced half a million litres. But they were in Dairy Farmers of Britain and its collapse – just as they were completing negotiations to buy the farm – forced a rethink.

They sold their milkers but kept up the production of replacements for other people –- rearing 100 or so heifers at a time to sell, mainly with second or third calves. The sheep numbers were doubled to around a thousand ewes to compensate for loss of the milk income. They have not quite done that, but prices for both cattle and sheep have been good enough to keep things going. And Robert is pleased to have found a solution which did not mean losing his cattle altogether.

He is a handy joiner and has converted some space in the old cattle sheds to keep about 300 Mules indoors this winter. It takes a bit of pressure off the land and he has spare silage from meadows seeded to feed the old dairy herd.

In terms of labour, the feeding costs no more than chasing the sheep around the fields, he says. In terms of bought-in feed, well, he is not sure yet.

But then, he is used to working that way.