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Winners Follow-up: John Egerton, 2019 Beef Innovator of the Year winner

Being named Beef Innovator of the Year at the 2019 British Farming Awards inspired John Egerton to keep improving the performance of his farm in County Fernarmagh, Northern Ireland.

Beef and sheep farmer John Egerton does not fear change and instead is constantly on the lookout for new innovations and ideas that could drive improvements
on his livestock farm.

Innovation, he says, is not just key to taking the industry to the next level but also enables him and his three sons to safeguard a business to progress into the future.

Winning the Beef Innovator of the Year accolade at the 2019 British Farming Awards offered him a welcome boost of reassurance.

John says: “It has given me more focus to make even more improvements and keep driving for better things.

“I have entered other competitions in Northern Ireland before, but wanted to see how I compared to the rest of the UK.

“When they called my name I couldn’t believe it. I was awestruck. I don’t remember anything that was said after they called my name, it was all a blur, but I will never forget that feeling.”

His success led to him being selected as a demonstration farm by the Government’s Department of Agriculture and, although this is currently on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions he is ‘more than delighted’ to be asked.

John grew up on the 72-hectare (178-acre) Lisnavoe Farm, County Fernarmargh and initially aspired to be a mathematics teacher. But, as the only boy in a family with six children, there was an expectation on him to come home and farm.

After attending agricultural college he did just that and followed his parents’ wishes.


He has never regretted his decision to work on his family’s farm and has enjoyed farming alongside his father Thomas, until he sadly died unexpectedly 17 years ago.

Now John’s three sons, who are all in their twenties, are keen to be involved in the business too.

The 90-strong suckler herd consists of 90 suckler cows bred through AI, a move which has driven the business forward.

“We used to buy in all our own replacements but it was hard to source good animals,” says John.

“We started using AI to breed our own and they were very successful and others liked them so we built a market up for them.

“We are not tied to any particular breed but we choose the best maternal genetics that we can get. “I’m looking for high milk figures, easy calving, good growth rates and good docile, easy cows,” he adds.

“We scour Northern Ireland, England and Southern Ireland looking for the best we can get.”

He has been using sexed semen for the past four years and while it is more expensive his heifer calves are worth more.

“When all is said and done, the more I can get, the better it is for me.”

It can be difficult to source sexed semen from the higher quality bulls he would like to use, and John hopes it will become more available in time. Bull calves are reared for beef for ABP, leaving the farm at approximately 14 months (380kg deadweight).

The suckler herd is divided in two with half calving in March/April and the remainder in August/September, a breeding decision which suits the housing and makes best use of the finishing house.

Predominantly operating a grass-based system, the farm is set up in paddocks of 0.4ha (1-acre) for youngstock and 0.9ha (2.2 acres) for cows. Each paddock is grazed for three days before being moved on and cattle don’t return to that paddock for 21 days.

“We have been grass measuring for eight years now and tinkered with the system before finding that three days works best,” explains John.

“This is flexible though and during periods of wet weather the cows may be moved on after two days to prevent damage.”

While grass measuring takes John a couple of hours every week, he believes the activity pays dividends as it informs decisions.

“The whole farm is GPS mapped so we know the exact size of each paddock. I feed the information into my grass software which then provides me with a budget for the week. I then know if I have enough or not enough grass and it helps us make decisions on closing off paddocks and cutting for silage.”

Another recent innovation has been the use of collars with his teaser bulls.

“The collar tracks movement of the teaser bull and detects when a cow comes into heat and then sends me a text.”

“Winning the award has given me more focus to make even more improvements and keep driving for better things”

The collar monitors the time the bull spends alongside the cow, the amount of interaction between the two such as head butting, and finally the cow standing to be mounted.

“We bought two collars last year and although some people say they are expensive, I was more inclined to ask myself how they could benefit our system.

“It has freed up a lot of my time and made heat detection more reliable.”


Prior to using the collars, which were a total investment of £2,000 plus annual subscriptions, John would spend a lot of time watching the cows, looking for signs. Now he can rely on the technology to inform him and this can come at any time of day or night.

“With the app I can track the fertility of the whole herd and look anything up on my mobile phone.”

As land is rarely available for sale locally and therefore extending the farm is unlikely, John has introduced a new enterprise of rearing dairy calves on contract. He thought of the idea after seeing how other farm businesses in the UK do it successfully.

“As soon as it was available in Northern Ireland I pushed to get into it and we have had five batches through the house now,” he says.

The Belgian Blue and Aberdeen Angus dairy crosses arrive at three weeks of age and leave at 15 weeks.

John hopes it may be possible to extend the enterprise further to take them through to finished weight in the future.

John’s measures his farming success by the level of ambition and enthusiasm shown by his three sons who wish to join the family business.

“All three want to be farmers and I think it’s partly because I haven’t been all doom and gloom and negative.

“I’m very positive and I think that has rubbed off on them.”

Eldest son William, 27, currently works on a farm in Scotland, while middle son Samuel, 24, is working with John full-time. Robert is the youngest, 22, and works at home part-time but hopes to join them fulltime soon.


John says: “Yes there is pressure alright – it’s probably what drives me to make the farm better and sustainable for my sons’ futures. It keeps me on my toes.”

John says being open-minded to new ideas is the key to success.

“In the beef industry there are some people who are really innovative but others who are set in their ways and it’s hard to get them to change.”

He welcomes visitors to the farm and enjoys sharing ideas and hearing their suggestions on how things could be better.

He also sees opportunities in new technology and is watching the development of virtual fencing with keen interest.

This is where stock are contained using electric force fields which can be controlled via computer, making strip grazing and back fencing much simpler, he explains.

“I find the prospect of being able to move across paddocks with tractors without having to open and close gates appealing.

“You can use a drone to measure the grass in the paddocks. It is in the very early stages but the technology has great potential.”

In the future John would like to see a move towards contracts based on the cost of production.

“We are producing a top class product but not getting rewarded for it. Contracts go a long way when you are looking to borrow money.

“I think we need to collaborate with meat factories and supermarkets rather than everybody fending for themselves. It’s in the best interests of everybody.”