Pictures: UGS consider business succession for grassland farmers during annual conference

This year’s Ulster Grassland Society Conference focused on the theme “Setting up the business for the future” with over 100 delegates attending on the day to be challenged and informed by an impressive line-up of speakers from England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Scotland.

The conference took place on Tuesday 23rd January at the Dunadry Hotel, Antrim where Society members firstly held their AGM. Reports from the Society’s Secretary George Reid and Treasurer Neville Graham highlighted another successful year with a number of farm walks and events held during 2023.

The Society Presidency then passed to Fermanagh beef and sheep farmer John Egerton FRAgS who received the chain of office from outgoing President David Linton.

John farms with his wife Elizabeth and their three sons running beef and sheep enterprises at Rosslea in Co Fermanagh. He has been involved in a number of research initiatives over the years including GrassCheck, Beacon Farm Network and the ArcZero project.

Four new Committee members were also elected - Albert Johnston, Josh Morton, Damian McAllister and James Speers.

During the conference proper the line-up of speakers presented to delegates on various aspects of the business planning/succession debate.

Firstly Dr Shane Conway, Project Manager and Lecturer at the University of Galway, highlighted his work in agricultural and rural social science where he has a particular focus on the human side of farming, older farmers and inter generational farm transfer. Shane presented some results from research on farmers attitudes to succession based on the findings of a survey undertaken across Ireland.

Well known facilitator and consultant Heather Wildman then utilised her 30 years’ experience working with farmers on succession to discuss many of the issues farm families struggle with when dealing with succession. These included When will succession happen? Who will succeed to the farm? Will it be sold? How to treat all your children fairly? Can you treat them fairly? What are the family’s expectations - financial, housing, full time/part time? How to avoid crippling the successor/farm with debt?

These presentations generated lots of discussion at the conference and wider debate on social media which again highlighted much of the emotion around land and land ownership.

The third conference speaker was Peter Brown, Chairman of the Agricultural Law Association in Northern Ireland, who addressed some of the legal aspects of succession and again this stimulated plenty of questions and discussion.

Finally Neale Manning, a Shropshire dairy farmer, gave a practical perspective talking about his own farm and how his family have dealt with succession. Farming 340 acres in partnership with his wife and youngest son, with help available from an older son who is a mechanical engineer, they milk 270 Spring calving cows with dairy replacements reared on the farm and beef calves sold at two weeks old.

After the presentations all the speakers took part in a panel discussion led by the President John Egerton which saw great engagement from delegates.

The results of the Society’s Grassland Farmer of the Year competition were also announced during the conference. This competition, again generously sponsored by Danske Bank, is always keenly contested and 2023 was no exception.

The Grassland Farmer of the Year competition winners were as follows:

Overall Grassland Farmer of the Year: David Hunter, Newtownstewart

Runners Up: Ryan McPolin, Cabra, Philip Truesdale, Castlewellan

Young Farmers Section

Winner: Eoin & Ryan McCollum, Cloughmills

Runners Up: Ross Beattie, Ballymoney, Richard & Samuel Beattie, Dunloy

The UGS are grateful to Danske Bank for their continued financial support for the Grassland Farmer of the Year competition.

At the conclusion of an excellent conference new President Elect Michael Graham ably proposed a vote of thanks to the speakers, sponsors, competitors and delegates for their input into a thought provoking and informative day.