The Welsh Winter Fair provides the platform for the announcement of the NFU Cymru-NFU Mutual-sponsored Livestock Champion of the Year award. Barry Alston visited the Powys hill farm of last year’s first recipient.
Robert Jones started farming when he was 10 years old. That was when he was given his own bunch of Jacob sheep to look after – and he has not looked back since.
They were a present from his parents in recognition of an emerging yearning to rear his own livestock, while also helping to maintain the traditional deep-seated skills stretching back over generations of Mid Wales farming families.
Despite his lack of years he soon showed he was more than capable of holding his own, winning the breed society’s small flock of the year awards not once but twice before he was 13.
That early grounding has since played a key role in his farming activities, justifiably rewarded by being awarded the keenly-contested NFU Cymru-NFU Mutual Livestock Champion of the Year accolade at year’s Royal Welsh Winter Fair.
Having been nominated by his father-in-law, Ieuan Evans, the judges’ decision came as a total shock.
The panel thought otherwise, for not only are Mr Jones’ stock rearing capabilities considered first class, his dedication and commitment to the wider industry does not end at the farm gate.
Robert Jones (right) and wife Llinos farm Lower Argoed Farm
Over the years hundreds of youngsters have learned a great deal from his stockmanship abilities by way of on-farm demonstrations and coaching activities.
He still retains an interest in Young Farmers Club (YFC) affairs, being a club leader at the local Erwood YFC and in his own competitive days gained numerous awards for judging cattle, sheep and pigs.
In fact, in the 1990s he was four times winner of the Royal Welsh Winter Fair stockjudging competition, a three times winner at the Birmingham Fatstock Show, as well as Brecknock YFC Federation’s three times winner of the Stockman of the Year award and Wales YFC Stockman of the Year in 1994.
He says: “I learned a great deal from the generations which went before me and feel duty bound to pass on that knowledge to those following on from me.”
Brought up on a livestock farm with a feeling for farming from a very young age, initially he farmed with his parents and brother, Phil Jones, but 12 years ago following the death of his father it was decided to establish separate businesses.
While his brother took on the Ty Isaf family farm on the outskirts of Erwood on the Breconshire side of the River Usk, Mr Jones and his wife, Llinos, a former staff nurse, moved to the already family-owned Lower Argoed Farm at Llandeilo Graban, on the other side of the river in Radnorshire.
There were few farm buildings which were suitable and no house on the 60-hectare (150-acre) holding, so the couple were faced with making a sizeable investment into both.
Classed as a hill farm, it rises from 305 metres (1,000ft) at the yard to 425m (1,400ft) at the highest point. A further 20ha (50 acres) near Builth Wells have since been added and another 48ha (120 acres) close to the holding are rented.
The sheep flock consists of 200 Suffolk cross ewes and 500 Talybont-type Welsh ewes.
The cross-breds are put to Beltex or Charollais tups for January lambing, with the aim being to capitalise on higher prices at the start of the season. The Welsh ewes lamb from mid-March. This year the entire flock scanned at 165 per cent.
Twin- and triplet-bearing ewes get supplementary feed, but Mr Jones is keen to reduce that cost.
He says: “It would be nice to do the whole job from grass if possible. With subsidy payments going down we are going to have to cut costs, become less reliant on bought-in feed and perhaps even keep less animals.
“Maybe as farmers we can be a bit greedy by nature and tend to push things a little further when times are good. But keeping fewer sheep and turning the clock back 20 or 30 years and becoming more reliant on what you can self-produce might be a good move.”
Some of the lambs are sold through Builth Wells livestock market, while others go deadweight to the abattoir at Merthyr Tydfil.
“I do like to sell at auction because you know what you are being paid for each individual lamb at the fall of the hammer,” says Mr Jones.
As well as finished lambs he also produces about 25 pure-bred Welsh rams each year, some of which have attracted breed record-setting bids over the years.
The spring-calving suckler herd revolves around 40 Limousin cross British Blue cows put to either Limousin or Blue bulls, with calves being sold through Brecon market as 10- to 12-month-old stores in the 400-420kg weight range.
Cows are loose housed from November to March and fed home-produced big bale silage, made as a joint-venture using shared equipment and labour with his brother.
A great deal of work has gone into improving the grassland, with reseeding being taken around the farm on a 10-year basis, some of the land being ploughed and shallower fields direct drilled.
Although the farm takes up most of Mr Jones’ time, he is just as keen today to find time to pass on his livestock knowledge to the next generations – including his own two children, 16-year-old Bethan, who is currently studying at the Herefordshire College, and 12-year-old Rhodri.
While Bethan is showing an interest in the cattle, in Rhodri’s case it would appear time has turned full circle.
As with Mr Jones he was given a small flock of Jacobs and like dad has had some considerable success, having won the breed championship at this year’s Royal Welsh Show and the Wales regional flock competition twice.
“It is good for them to be involved in the care and upbringing of livestock – but they are under no pressure,” says Mr Jones.
“Above all you have to take the rough with the smooth. Livestock farming can be similar to baking a cake. You use the same ingredients one year to the next but the result is not always the same.”