With sheep, chickens and a booming oilseed rape venture, Welsh hill farmer, Llŷr Jones, has implemented new strategies across the business to make his farm enterprise profitable.
At Derwydd farm, in the hills of north Wales, farmer Llŷr Jones is doing anything but putting his eggs in one basket.
Running 1,500 sheep and 16,000 laying hens, he has begun to use multiple systems to ensure productivity across all sections of the farm business are equally successful.
Alongside the livestock, Llŷr has also carved out a thriving oilseed rape business, selling cold-pressed oil to supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda.
And within each strand, he has implemented ways of either sustaining or improving productivity through various computer and data handling technology.
Llŷr, who farms in partnership with his mother Iola at Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr near Corwen, has firstly taken to harnessing the power of the ground to provide heating for his free-range egg enterprise.
Originally a traditional beef and sheep enterprise, Derwydd Farm became home to the hens when three years ago, Llŷr decided to diversify into free-range eggs.
With uncertainty about the future of subsidies and Brexit, diversification had already been on Llŷr’s mind and winning a Farming Connect Agri Academy scholarship further widened his horizons.
A scholarship workshop with the Tesco Future Farmer Foundation followed and it was there that he met the egg company he would eventually supply.
“In 2015 Farming Connect helped me put a business plan together for the egg unit which gave me a much stronger position when seeking finance from the bank,” says Llŷr.
And now at peak production, the farm supplies 105,000 eggs a week to Norfolk-based Anglia Free Range Eggs, which supplies Tesco.
Following an investment of nearly £60,000 in an advanced ground source system, the 39-year-old father of two has been able to power an underfloor heating system for his 16,000 laying hens, beneficial to both their welfare and the business’ returns.
“I need the hens to be happy and warm so that they use all their energy to lay larger eggs,” says Llŷr.
“If they’re cold, they use that energy to warm themselves up.”
It has an alarming effect on the hens’ early development too, demonstrated by the fact that Llŷr’s flock are hitting their weight targets ahead of schedule and are producing eggs sooner.
He says: “I keep records and they show that hens that are underweight when they arrive put on that weight within a week now. At that stage, every gram they put on is vital.
“The hens need energy to grow and when they arrive as 16 week-old pullets, it is crucial they are happy and warm so they can put all their energy into growth. We find they are about eight days ahead which means about £5,000 over the flock to us – it all adds up.”
Some 2,000 metres of pipe has been laid under half an acre of the farm, through which is carried water that has been warmed by the heat retained in the soil from the sun. This then feeds into the henhouse’s underfloor heating system, making sure the 20 metre by 80 metre building is a comfortable 18 degrees celsius.
The hens spend the day foraging outside, returning to their roosts before nightfall and keeping the all-important market requirements in consideration, Llŷr opted for Lohmann Brown hens which, he says, produce the large eggs Tesco is looking for.
But he also records how much the hens drink and eat, right down to the very last mililitre of water.
“We have a meter attached to the water pipe and to the silos that connect to the computer. If the amount of water the hens drink falls, or the amount of feed, it divides it by the number of hens and I can do something before productivity then falls,” says Llŷr.
And it was through looking at the hens’ performance that Llŷr decided to look more closely at his sheep, feeling that his somewhat traditional way of sheep farming could reap the rewards of an update.
Across 566.5 hectares (1,400 acres), Llŷr runs an extensive, grass-fed system with his 500 Welsh mules and 1,000 Welsh ewes, on land that ranges in height from sea level to 1,400 feet.
In September in 2018, he introduced a new weighing system on-farm, with a view to increase the productivity of the herd by analysing the lambs weight and tracing it back to the mothers.
The use of the Prattley 3-way auto drafter works by sectioning off the lambs, categorising them as lambs that have either underperformed and lost weight, lambs that are below their target weight but have gained weight, and lambs that have hit the target weight, which Llŷr inputs in to the system first.
Although quite an expensive addition to the farm, Llŷr was helped through a Welsh Government grant and says that in the long run, the system will pay itself off because the more he puts in, the more he will get back.
“I was shocked at the weight lost due to lameness,” says Llŷr.
“I found that lambs could lose up to 100 grams a day and with this system, I can now look at treating individual lambs rather than a whole flock.”
It also provides him with the means to weave the under performing ewes out of the flock.
When the ewes have lambed, each lamb is recorded on the system and can be traced back to its mother.
Then, when weighing takes place, Llŷr can easily connect every lamb to the ewe.
“I can essentially marry the mothers and lambs together,” says Llŷr.
“But when I weigh the lambs and look at the ones that haven’t performed as well as I might have expected, I already have the recorded mother and can pull them out to sell them on.”
Selling to ABP, Dunbia and a little to the local market, Llŷr takes immense pride in Welsh lamb and wants to continue to provide top class meat to champion the product.
He says: “Welsh lamb is the best in the world.
“It has a really good story to tell and we need to protect it.”
Llŷr is also part of a group of farmers who supply an enterprise that turns fallen livestock into renewable energy.
When the ban on burying fallen livestock on-farm came in in 2006, he was among local farmers who set up their own incinerator using fossil fuels.
This led to them identifying a company in Staffordshire which renders the animals and produces electricity, which is, says Llŷr, a win, win situation.
But it is just another string to his bow that proves his can-do attitude is the way farmers must work to continually survive each challenge the industry faces.
“I would like to think I’m quite a progressive farmer,” says Llŷr.
“Each time we’re given a problem, I try to solve it.
“And with the sheep, when EID tagging was made comulsory by law I thought we’re not doing anything particular with them, let’s try and get as much infomation as we can and invest in the auto drafter.
“We can use that technology and by doing so, we can also get lambs that the market wants every time. And it doesn’t take that long to do.”
The farm also includes 100 acres of arable land, which produces rapeseed supplied to Welsh rape-seed oil producer, Blodyn Aur (Golden Flower).
Set up a decade ago by Llŷr and two farming friends, Blodyn Aur’s cold-pressed oil now sells in a variety of retailers, including Asda, Morrisons, and Sainsbury’s and uses a barcode technology that indicates to Llŷr how much is being sold.
“We can log on to a system from home that tells us what sells in which store and at what time,” says Llŷr.
“It used to be a case of soemone ringing us to order four more pallets for example but it is now up to us to re-stock the supermarket.”
Llŷr’s OSR enterprise is unique in the sense he is the only farmer in Wales to produce rapeseed oil.
And it is his forward thinking ways and openess to new methods of farming through the combination of technology and renewables that will see his business continue to grow.