Being surrounded by good livestock and his family is the exact fuel beef and sheep farmer James Alexander needs to succeed. In this exclusive interview for The SF Chris McCullough met up with the Randalstown farmer to find out what motivates him.

He’s well known in show circles and for producing some of the best cattle and sheep Northern Ireland has to offer. James, together with wife Ruth, has five children; Mya 11, Alicia 10, Isla 9, Jaxson 8, Eliza 5, and farm near Randalstown, in Co Antrim.

Read more: Check out the best of the special livestock sales throughout Scotland and the UK

Throughout the Covid-19 times, James has been selling livestock via online and farm sales which have been well supported by buyers across the UK and Ireland.

Tell me about your farm?

We currently farm 1000 acres, mostly owned with some conacre [summer rent] and run 1000 heifers at any one time. The business plan is to source suitable heifers from the UK and Ireland, get them in calf and sell them.

We have been selling privately for the last 10 years straight from the farm, but more recently introduced on-farm/online auction sales. With two cattle sales completed we have two more planned this year, one of which will be purely online.

Also, we run 750 ewes, including 150 pedigree Suffolk ewes and 500 Cheviot Mule commercial ewes, and a few recipients used for carrying embryos from the Suffolk ewes. There are also 1100 ewe lambs, a mixture of home-bred and bought in stock that we sell as hoggets/gimmers.

James with his youngest, Eliza

James with his youngest, Eliza

Which breeds do you use on the farm and why?

In the cattle we use a lot of breeds with an emphasis on quality and have established a reputation for selling well-shaped British Blue crossed Limousin heifers.

Also we have Simmental crosses and Shorthorn crosses, which are less muscled heifers, but it’s always the shapely ones that make the headlines and people see in the photos.

Our sheep flock is made up of Cheviot Mule ewes, preferably bred from a park-type Cheviot ewe. We cross those with a Suffolk tup, with a breeding ewe lamb being the goal.

The flock is all aimed at producing breeding sheep that we sell as hoggets/gimmers. We got into the pedigree Suffolks as we found the type of tup we wanted so hard to find, especially in Ireland. I wanted more emphasis on skin, colours, and character, and less about bone and a good head.

How long have you been farming with your father?

I’ve been farming along with my father since I can remember, but it was after my grandfather Alexander passed when I was 14 that I started having real input.

I’m more keen on the sheep side than my father is! I started keep sheep not long after we dispersed my granda’s flock, as it was my way of keeping him around.

After I left Greenmount in 1997, I focused on the cows that my dad had built up. They had a lot of Blue influence and the introduction of a few Limousin bulls with these led the way for the show calf job that was to come.

What has made the online auctions so successful for you?

The Covid-19 pandemic sped up the ability to buy livestock online and I was keen to use it.

I had been using social media as a marketing tool for a long time and having the on-farm sale was an addition to this. Buying stock online is not for everyone, I know, but the heifers we chose to put through the online sales are top quality.

I want to give the person at home the confidence to either buy online or get them interested enough to come and see for themselves what I have on offer.

With every heifer being individually professionally photographed and videoed, the animal can be seen from all angles. Plus all info I have about each animal is also listed.

Are there buyers outside NI?

We have increasing numbers of stock going to both RoI and mainland UK every time. It is a market that the online and home sales opens up more as it’s so easy to purchase.

All stock for my upcoming online heifer sale have been pre-movement TB tested to try and increase confidence further.

How do you see farming in Northern Ireland?

Very deep question! Farming everywhere can be a challenge, the price of what we are producing can fluctuate so much, the costs are constantly rising and we cannot control either.

The weather is rarely our friend, but again we cannot control it. In NI, I think our biggest challenge is scale.

I’m just home from a few days in Scotland and the difference in scale is immense. It’s so hard to scale up to make things more efficient here.

Read more: Who runs Scotland's best beef and sheep farms?

We are on smaller farms and more spread out land so more time on the road, more diesel, less efficient time use, more labour costs, needing two telehandlers to feed satellite yards etc.

Brexit has really made a mess too. We have a lot of pedigree breeders needing to sell across the water, but if animals go across it’s on a one-way ticket with the new rules. Also, bringing in new bloodlines from the sales, both sheep and cattle, is all but destroyed as things are. I really hope they can get something sorted.

Would you consider farming in Scotland?

I have many friends in Scotland. At home, we have often spoke about trying to consolidate all our land.

This would be virtually impossible in N Ireland, so Scotland does get talked about regularly, more-so since Brexit if I’m being honest. It is definitely something that I wouldn’t rule out.

Do Scottish farmers have any advantages over us?

I think the Scotch Beef marketing is fantastic, we really lack that here. We have no ‘brand’ for our produce and politics in Northern Ireland doesn’t make branding any easier.

Livestock marts play a larger role in farming in Scotland, as they are more involved and more actively in contact with the farmer regarding movements in price and forecasting.

What do you enjoy about farming the most?

I love being surrounded by good livestock, ideally stock that I produced, but sourcing and managing stock to their very best potential really appeals to me.

I like the sheep side as it’s such a quick process. You can see the fruits of your labour quickly, so then its quicker to learn, tweak, and improve what you’re aiming for.

My problem is, as I care for the stock so much, when the losses come and they come to us all no matter how hard we try, it hurts more.