The subject of succession – the topic that is reluctantly spoken about in many farming households – was the central theme at last week's Ulster Grassland Society annual conference in the Dunadry Inn, Antrim.

More than 100 delegates attended the event, at which Fermanagh beef and sheep farmer, John Egerton, was elected President.

A number of key speakers outlined some of the main issues involved in making succession plans against a background that around half of farmers had no plans made for someone to succeed them in the business.

The problems facing older farmers and their families to ensure the farm businesses continued into the future were identified, but also a checklist for farm families to consider when looking to the future.

One of the speakers was Heather Wildman, of Saviour Associates from Scotland, who said farm families had to prepare for ‘the six Ds’: Death, Disability, Disaster/Disease, Divorce, Disagreement and Debt.

One of the questions she is asked is when does someone start to make plans for succession?

She answered that this could be when a family member marries, or starting a new family, or when new members such as school leavers joined the business.

Of course it could be when a family member wanted to retire, when there was illness in the family, there was an unhappy family member, and communication breakdown.

Then there were questions for farmers if they were ready to make the change to look at a time frame, an exit or retirement plan and if they knew what their spouse or children wanted – and above all, if they had discussed it with their family.

Heather also posed many other questions as farmers managed their businesses, such as what they wanted to achieve.

She then produced a checklist of some of the technical information farm families needed to collect and have ready for their meetings with professional, legal and advisory teams.

These include land ownership, the title reference, acreages, location of properties, any mortgages or diversification projects.

Then there were the legal wills, powers of attorney, property deeds, tax records, financial records and statements, bank information, savings and investments, retirement planning and savings, lists of debtors and other liabilities, etc.

She said there needed to be vision, communication and collaboration and to pose the question: What are the goals and ambitions, and have you the right team around you to help you to succeed?

She said everyone needs to be happy and not talk down farming.

“Winners in life are those who are excited about where they are going," she said.

Another speaker, solicitor Peter Brown, on Estate and Tax Planning, outlined the necessary steps for farm families to look at succession, including making Powers of Attorney.

Peter quoted information from the Land Mobility Scheme NI’s report from 2016, with the YFCU, when it found that 52 per cent of farmers in 1993 were more than 55 years told.

This had risen to 59 per cent in 2013. The percentage of farmers under 44 years dropped from 26 per cent in 2013, to 17 per cent in 2013.

Just over 52 per cent surveyed had identified a successor, 48 per cent had no successor identified.

Just 36 per cent wanted to retire from active farming, 42 per cent did not want to retire from active farming, and 55 per cent were likely to rely on family members or neighbours to help out.

Worryingly, 61 per cent of farmers with no successor did not have advice on the issue.

Peter advocated strongly on the use of Powers of Attorney which allowed nominated people to deal with the donor’s affairs if they became incapable of doing so.

He also went through taxation issues such as Inheritance Tax and Capital Gains Tax.

One of the other speakers was Dr. Shane Conway from the University of Galway’s Rural Centre who led a groundbreaking project into the attitudes of older farmers, especially their reluctance to step aside from a farm.

As a result, groups called ‘Farm Yards’ similar to (Men’s Sheds) were set up and based at livestock marts where older farmers frequented.

He said the overall message was to give older farmers a voice in the debate on succession.

The final speaker, Neale Manning, a farmer from Shropshire, gave an account of how his family tackled the issue of succession and said success was measured by how family members enjoyed time together.

He said it was important for everyone working on the farm to have a good lifestyle as well as be successful in the business.

The winner of the Ulster Grassland Society Farmer of the Year Competition was David Hunter from Droit Road, Newtownstewart, who impressed judges with his dairy herd performance of 7,378litres per cow with butterfat of 4.87 per cent and protein of 3.77 per cent.

He was feeding 2.17 tonnes per cow with the aim to target 1.5t.

Clover is grown throughout all swards with multispecies targeted and helped through summer droughts. He measures, manages and plans the grazing platform.

G Lime is spread each spring, targeting pH 6, and he also gets a slurry analysis. He has upgraded drinkers and installed new laneways.

Silage pits are well covered using three covers with good effluent capture, and the farm has good clean yards.

He has a new calf feeder and judges found David's eagerness to learn and improve, and labour efficiency, to be very informative.