Rosemary Champion with a cow


Smallholder do's & don'ts - when to call the experts


Starting a smallholding is a huge learning experience that will enable you to develop lots of new practical skills – but there are times when the option of calling in skilled contractors is worth pursuing. In the fifth of a six-part series in partnership with NFU Mutual, Rosemary Champion shares her advice.

“For some, the motivation for smallholding is to be self-sufficient and learning new skills is part of that – but as a friend of mine once told me, “We smallholders can do anything, but we can’t do everything”. The co-author of a well-known book on self-sufficiency explained that, while she and her other half HAD done all the things in the book, they hadn’t done them all at the same time.

“Generally, if there are things you really don’t like doing, the chances are, you aren’t going to do as good a job as you might otherwise. And if there are highly skilled jobs that only require doing occasionally – so you won’t be practising them regularly (and skills do need to be practised) – you might be better buying those skills in.

“So what might you contract out?

1. Shearing 

“This is a job that has to be done every year and training is available from the British Wool Marketing Board. But if you only have a few sheep (and you’re not planning to become a shearing contractor yourself), you won’t get much opportunity to develop or consolidate your skills. If you don’t mind what the fleece looks like once it’s off, then you can simply cut it off any way you like (without harming the sheep, of course). A smallholding chum of mine does just that – “shearing” a couple of sheep every night after work – but the fleece is only good for hanging baskets and gateways. “It’s shearing, Jim, but not as we know it!” If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you might want to bring in a professional shearer to get the fleeces off your small flock in a tidy manner – especially if you are planning to sell them or send them for processing. As the number of small flocks has increased, getting a shearer that’s happy to do a dozen sheep or so has become much easier.

2. Haymaking or silage making 

“If you are overwintering livestock like cattle, sheep or goats, you will need winter feed – and that usually comes in the form of hay or silage. You can either buy it in or, if you have sufficient acreage, you can close off some of your pasture and make your own – or alternatively, you can employ a contractor to make it for you. Making hay or silage involves cutting the grass, drying it and storing it and each process requires equipment – some of it expensive and/or complicated. At its simplest, grass can be cut with a scythe, turned to dry with a pitchfork and gathered and stored loose. However, faster and less labour intensive methods – like baling – may justify using a contractor. But be aware that if a contractor has 5 acres to work for you and 50 acres to work for a big farmer, and the weather forecast isn’t good, it’s likely that your hay might not be made at the best time.

3. Scanning, artificial insemination (AI) and cattle foot trimming

“There are some livestock tasks that are better left to the professionals – and scanning, AI and trimming cattle feet are three of them. Our cattle need a pedicure once a year and our trimmer comes with a crush that costs tens of thousands of pounds – but it’s safe, quick and efficient, and apparently pretty stress-free for the cattle. Similarly, the scanner who does our sheep (the vet scans the cattle) has a 100% accuracy record and some pretty nifty equipment. 

4. Fencing 

“This is a hard one. Basic tools for fencing aren’t expensive and the basic skills aren’t difficult to master – but it’s physical work if you’re only using basic equipment like a manual post rammer, or if your soil is stony. Our soil is sandy, and in all the fencing we’ve done here, my husband Dan says he’s never hit a stone – so we’re lucky in that regard (although sandy soil also means that posts are easy for cattle and ponies to push over). And barbed wire is horrible to handle. So if you have a lot of fencing to do and you need it done quickly, then employing a contractor to do it might be worth considering.

5. Muck, lime and fertilizer spreading

“While it’s probably unlikely that you’ll be spreading nitrogen fertilizer, if you have pasture, you’re probably going to have to top dress with phosphate, potassium and lime. If you have a tractor or quad, small fertilizer spreaders are available and they will spread some types of lime as well. But the quantities of lime are usually quite substantial. We bought a small fertilizer spreader that spread 50kg at a time but we needed to spread five tonnes of lime across the holding – so we used a contractor and it took him about 20 minutes. Similarly, if you have cattle and/or ponies, or if you house your sheep in winter, you will have a lot of muck – and spreading it is probably best done by a contractor.

6. Chainsaw work/tree felling 

“Chainsaws and falling trees are dangerous. You must have proper training and proper equipment, including the full range of safety gear. If you have both, then you might be able to do some work yourself but felling large trees is probably best left to the professionals.

“Of course, calling in a contractor is a very positive way of supporting the local rural economy – so don’t be shy!”

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