Phill Dancer has his eyes on the prize as he focuses all his energy on producing the best flock he possibly can. Liz Snath reports.
Every person in this country needs a farmer at least three times a day. So says new entrant Phill Dancer who is immensely proud to be one of them.
“Farming is one of the top jobs in the world,” he says. “I aim to produce the best and run a profitable operation by maximising performance from my own resources. I’m currently focused on improving the genetics of my flock by introducing the Aberfield, becoming dependent on forage-based diets and investing in new technology. When added together, we’re scheduling improved output and reduced costs as we gear up the unit for support changes post-Brexit.”
Phill manages Cefngwyrgrug Farm, Aberhosan, Machynlleth, comprising 325 hectares (800 acres) of mountain and a further 160ha (395 acres) of improved land. He has also established his own flocks of pedigree and commercial sheep.
In fact, he demonstrates all the skills of being born and raised in a Welsh farming family, although this is not his background story.
Turn the clock back 20 years and sheep farming was an unlikely career for Phill, whose parents worked in telecoms and for a building society. His destiny became apparent at seven years of age.
“We moved out of town to a village in Powys. Some family friends had bought a nearby farm and I started to spend every weekend and school holiday there. I got hooked. Farming offered a big variety of seasonal jobs and I really enjoyed working outdoors, in particular with sheep, regardless of the hours. Right there and then, I decided there would be no better job for me.”
Studying for a national diploma in agriculture at Llysfasi Agricultural College was a natural progression followed by various practical courses and travelling. He opted to visit New Zealand where he completed a Government backed shearing course, going on to shear thousands of sheep.
Returning to Wales, he found himself back at Llysfasi, this time helping manage the college flock during lambing, which provided an unexpected opportunity for knowledge exchange among the students. A few weeks later he was appointed to manage Cefngwyrgrug for Ieuan Hughes.
“I heard about the job by word of mouth and, nine years on, I still count myself as lucky to have had the opportunity. While Mr Hughes was in his 70s at the time and continues to remain active, I was given a tremendous amount of responsibility from day one, including record-keeping and managing routine farm inspections.
“The main driver has been to improve Cefngwyrgrug’s efficiency, and I’ve been able to make some significant gains from various changes. For starters, I swapped the original mixed North / South Welsh ewe flock for pure Tregarron Welsh ewes, which I believe are better suited to this mountain unit, being hardier and also having more length. I introduced regular condition scoring combined with strict culling which has improved scanning from the 95 per cent to about 120 per cent.
“Genetic progress has continued and we agreed we wanted to breed an even stronger ewe, one with a slightly bigger frame, more length and better on the shoulder while retaining strong mothering ability. Two years ago, we considered the Aberfield to do the job, introduced to 400 draft ewes and we are finding these genetics are doing the business.
“Our Aberfield cross ewe lambs are achieving a 20 per cent improved sales margin, while the wethers are leaving up to 50 per cent more margin. Furthermore, one Aberfield ram has the power to cover up to 120 ewes and most lamb in the first three weeks. The lambs pop out unassisted, show real vigour and are up sucking immediately, it is just brilliant. We plan to annually retain a portion of the Aberfield cross ewe lambs as replacements, however they’re in demand from other farmers and we have the option to sell. Last year we traded some for a 20 per cent premium over the pure-breds.
“The Aberfield cross wether lambs are finishing to target weight at an average 22 weeks, that’s three months earlier than the purebreds, so I’ve got more grass, fewer inputs, less risk and better cash flow.”
Improved genetics has been simultaneously accompanied by improved forage management.
“While this unit is already low input, I’ve found 10-day rotational mob grazing after tupping makes better use of forage. I split the 900 ewes into four groups, introduce each to 100 acres, and move them on every three days until the turn of the year when they are introduced to supplementary 18 per cent CP red clover rich silage. My objective is keep ewes in condition score 3-3.5 until lambing starts outdoors in late March, and eliminate the 10 tonnes of concentrate traditionally fed.
Phill has also introduced an annual reseeding policy where 16ha (40 acres) is drilled with either high sugar perennial rye-grass or forage rape, enabling him to finish the entire crop of wether lambs, previously sold as stores.
“Next up is investing in some new kit. I’ve just ordered some new handling facilities, weigh cells and technology to help us measure and monitor, select more carefully and ultimately make better informed flock management decisions.”
Cefngwyrgrug’s complementary suckler herd has also been turned around.
“When I arrived, the herd calved all year, nowadays 100 per cent of cows are calving in four weeks. Apart from making vast improvements to herd efficiency, it means I can now take a holiday.
"The entire herd is crossed to a high index Charolais bull and progeny are sold in the store ring at an average of 14 months and 450kg."
It is critical to keep abreast of developments and how to implement them, he says.
“I like to attend farm meetings so I can keep learning, including those organized by Dyfi Valley Grassland Society. There is nothing like getting out and about, visiting other farms, being inspired by other sheep farmers and encouraged to think outside the box. I’ve got a great set of farming friends. We share ideas, compare results, and have great discussions on-farm, at the bar and using social media.”
Phill’s long-term ambition is to farm his own unit. Developing a share farming agreement is among his options but in the meantime he is building capital with his own two flocks.
“Shortly after being appointed to Cefngwyrgrug, Mr Hughes offered me two fields to graze which gave me the incentive to achieve something I’d longed for – to have my own sheep.
“I started off buying five in-lamb pedigree Texels and the maedi visna-accredited flock has since grown to 25 ewes. Signet performance recording is helping me make better selection decisions.
“I aim to produce naturally-grown commercial yearling rams. Flock improvement is reflected in average price increasing year on year and, even more encouraging, I now have repeat buyers.”
Success does not stop in the sale ring and Phill says some of his rare spare time is spent in the showring.
“I try to support our local shows. It’s worth it – I’ve had my fair share of success.”
Back home, he has another 100 cross-bred ewes to manage and his second flock is established on 16ha (40 acres) of nearby rented grazing.
“They’re synchronized to lamb from mid-January to spread my workload and hit the earlier market.”
Profit is ploughed back in to the business and when a further 8.5ha (21 acres) came up for rent this year, he expanded the Texel flock.
“In the near future, if I’m able to take on more land my plans are to expand my commercial flock to 400 ewes, further increase the Texel flock to 50 ewes and annually produce 20 rams for the society’s Shropshire and Border sale.
“The biggest challenge for a young entrant is getting hold of land to rent at an affordable price, without subsidies.
I’ve been lucky with landlords who are realistic.
“With increasing uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations, the road ahead looks rocky, however farmers will find a way to successfully come through. For me, it’s all about listening, learning, keeping the options open and remaining positive. It’s also about encouraging the next generation in to our industry, even if, like me, they haven’t been born in to it. It’s something I believe is crucial for a vibrant hill farming sector.
“As a first-generation farmer, I’ve got a totally new outlook and am keen to better myself, I have a passion and a love for farming, and it’s what I enjoy doing. I haven’t been forced into the industry just because it’s what the family has always done.”