Well-known to the Welsh farming community and beyond, Gaina Morgan talks to Meurig James about his farming life and recent accolade.
Meurig James is highly respected internationally among cattle breeders and to further prove his passion and commitment to farming, he has recently been appointed chair of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society Livestock Committee. In his day job as head of breed development at Holstein UK and head of the National Bovine Data Centre, he has a pivotal role in the quality and performance of UK herds.
And Meurig relishes both aspects of his life. He has long been involved with the society and its events and first became interest in type classification as a youngster on the home farm in West Wales, where until relatively recently he still milked at weekends. He has been heavily involved with the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society (RWAS) for many years and has been on the livestock committee since 2012.
He also sits on the RWAS board of management, is a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Societies and his voice is familiar as a commentator. Meurig still lives at the family farm, Pengawse, in Whitland, West Wales. There, he began his working life with British Friesian dairy cows, but with a younger brother keen to farm and limited acreage he joined Holstein UK. Further education took the form of competing, debating and committee work with the Young Farmers Clubs.
He says: “I started off with Young Farmers when I left school and went home. Young Farmers is probably one of the greatest youth organisations that there is and deserves our support. I say with all sincerity that if it wasn’t for Young Farmers, I wouldn’t be sitting here in the position I hold.
“It gave me all the experience and it’s an organisation that, if you have got any hidden talents at all, then Young Farmers will bring it out in you. Public speaking, poultry trussing or stock judging or whatever, there is such a variety of competitions. There is so much talent out there in the rural communities and often they don’t find it in themselves. Even today, although not as much as it used to be, young people can be tied to the farm and never go anywhere.”
He is committed to giving back to the rural community and is involved in a wide range of local farming and other initiatives, including Carmarthen Chamber of Agriculture and the Welsh Dairy Show. He concedes that it takes ‘a certain type of person’ to embrace committee life.
But he is very proud of the Royal Welsh Show and its importance in and beyond the Welsh rural community. But he says that a groundswell of change is challenging the show and the society’s other events, along with a huge range of shows right down to the smallest village event. His concern is that the cost of showing is increasing, financially as well as in hours away from the farm, together with the increasing rules and regulations. And he warns against those in power bringing out new rules that would make showing animals nearly impossible.
He says: “I still think it’s very, very important. Shows are the shop window of the industry and whatever livestock you have, there’s a lot of marketing done at these shows, even at the smaller shows. A lot will struggle, but at these smaller shows a lot of local people will exhibit and they can take livestock in the morning and back at night. But for any local show to be successful it has to have a lot of local support. I still think they have a future as long as they have enough support from their own square mile.”
Meurig wants to embrace the shifting dynamics in rural society, accelerated by social change brought about by the covid pandemic. There is much to be gained from harnessing the talents, capabilities and perspective of people moving to the countryside.
He says: “Farmers have to accept that a lot of people who move into these communities and come to the shows and see an animal but don’t quite know what breed of sheep or cow it is. As farmers we have to educate these people.
“We have to adapt the shows in order to become stronger and more relevant in the future. I think we have to adapt to a point where we use it as a shop window, not only to market our stock to other farmers and breeders, but to town people as well. When change comes, there’s no point in fighting against it all the time. Too many people do. If change comes, very, very rarely do things go back to the way they used to be. I just think you have to adapt to benefit from these changes. You have a lot of people coming from the cities, with probably more working from home than there used to be. We are probably going to see more people living in the country, but they will still have strong connections with the towns and cities and we must try and educate them and draw them in to see what’s going on in the countryside. They need to know about livestock being worried. And to respect the countryside more – invest themselves in what’s going on and the nuances of, for example, the difference between a Holstein and a Jersey and a Texel and a Welsh Mountain.”
Meurig’s travels, internationally and across the UK, with Holstein UK and as a renowned judge, have helped to inform his outlook. He feels UK farmers rank with the best in the world but are more heavily regulated. His professional role means he leads a team of 21 people at Holstein UK and oversees the classification of 140,000 pedigree and non-pedigree dairy and beef cattle each year.
And he applies the same principles of embracing change, as well as people’s differences and varying talents. The Holstein UK type classification is the only type appraisal programme in the UK that is internationally recognised. Meurig says the criteria provide a valuable management tool for both dairy and beef producers and is not reserved for showing and elite breeders.
He says: “By classifying, conformational strengths are recorded and can be improved upon in the next generation via corrective breeding, improving the herd’s production, longevity and health and welfare, economically benefiting the farm. Highly graded animals are proven to have a considerably higher value than non-classified animals. Specific strengths and weaknesses are highlighted, allowing improved corrective breeding decisions to be made and the general standard of conformation to be improved across the herd. Cattle of a better conformation are proven to be more productive, less demanding and longer-lived.”
Genomics is another tool that can be used alongside type classification. He says genomics involves looking at future potential, whereas type classification portrays the actual good and bad points of the cow, with standard criteria applying across all breeds. Meurig is the only one of 14 classifiers who works across all 17 breeds currently with Holstein UK.
While he is always striving for improvement, he is pragmatic. But while there is no such thing as the perfect cow, the basic criteria across the breeds remain: power and strength, top line and rump, good legs and feet and good udders. It is a maxim he applies to everything with which he is involved: work to the basic principles and improve, while adapting to change and circumstance.