Having entered the industry as a first-generation farmer, Michael Jones is determined to create a legacy of opportunities for his family. Joel Durkin reports.
For Welsh sheep farmer Michael Jones, one simple goal is set as apriority over all other farm business objectives. “I would like to be able to have my son Bedwyr on-farm with me one day. If he wants to be involved, I want to be able to support him,” he says.
Michael, a 29-year-old first generation farmer, has seen his family grow over the past year and hopes to expand the tenanted business, which currently manages about 650 ewes and 12 British Blue cross Friesian breeding cattle, so he can involve his son in future.
To achieve his ambition, Michael has outlined several plans for his beef and sheep business near Llandygai, Bangor.
"I would like to increase
the stocking gradually"
“I would like to think I can get 900-1000 ewes. This is where I would like to be,” he says. “And I would like to grow the cattle to 25-30.
“While it would be possible to achieve this number in the farm’s current condition I would like to increase the stocking gradually as I carry on investing in the farm.”
It is a surprising statement for a man who, after being granted entry to the industry through a long-term tenancy aged 24, has grown the business from a small pedigree flock of about 60-70 Charollais ewes operated from his grandfather’s nearby farm, to a profitable commercial and pedigree unit set across 280 owned and tenanted acres.
The growth of the business has taken him five years and his determination is as prevalent now as it was back then.
Born in Glan Conwy, Michael’s farming career began at a young age with pedigree Charollais sheep.
Despite spending time on various academic and agricultural courses, Michael’s desire for practical farmwork was always stronger than his inclination for learning in educational establishments.
“I have worked on beef and sheep farms,” he explains. “I have been lucky enough to work on farms with different systems and I took everything on board.”
Michael also held a number of other jobs in the industry while supporting the pedigree flock which he took on from his grandfather. But he was given an opportunity to fulfil his ambitions to enter as a farmer when a tenancy at the Penrhyn Estate, managed by Carter Jonas, was advertised in the local newspaper.
“I went to them with a business plan,” Michael says. “When we were looking at another farm we formed a business plan with a consultant but it was very formal and not personal.”
He has stuck to his self-made plan with the Carter Jonas tenancy, going into cattle by year three.
After being accepted for the tenancy and moving to the farm in 2011, it is clear Michael and his partner, Gwawr Owen, were set on grabbing the opportunity with both hands.
Gwawr says: “If the tenancy were for five years we would currently be in our last few months.
“But the 15-year agreement gave us the confidence to get a bank loan and set about quickly building a flock from 60-70 pedigree ewes to our current numbers.”
The business currently keeps 80 pedigree Charollais ewes, 200 Welsh ewes and 370 Texel mules in addition to the cattle.
Half the pedigree Charollais flock are put to a pedigree tup with offspring sold at pedigree sales. The other half are put to a Beltex or Texel tup.
The commercial lambs are predominantly sold through Llanwrst livestock market at about 38kg liveweight. Michael explains a key benchmark is the number of animals sold through the mart as a proportion of his flock’s size.
He is currently selling about 700-750 through the mart each year but is keen to increase the figure to about 1.45-1.5 times the flock’s size.
“I have lost a lot of ewes this year through stupid things but an important figure is the number of animals sold through the market,” he says.
Another key strategy for the business is maximising the use of grass and Michael is currently in the middle of a significant reseed of the farm.
“I do not creep feed as I believe in pasture feeding. When we came in, 400-450 ewes was the most you could keep here. It is desperate for a reseed and I have probably done 50-60 acres and another 55 acres will be done this year.”
“You do not realise what you have got until it has gone,” he says, referring to the grass growth at his grandfather’s holding. “We underestimated this, it grows a bit quicker than down here.
“We winter ewe lambs at the other place and we send a few away for wintering as well.”
Until this year, the business ran without entitlements, with Michael instead opting to invest in stock numbers, which meant returns from sales have been vital for the farm’s financial performance.
Lambing takes place from December to March to keep cash coming into the business.
“I have to have a steady flow of cash and every lamb counts,” he says. “We have built ewe numbers up, we have started keeping our own replacements and I am looking to tighten my lambing.”
Michael believes the breeds he operates are suited to the type of land the farm is built on and his pasture-feeding methods.
“I look primarily for good length when buying ewes. But livestock have got to choose the farm, you cannot keep pedigree ewes on top of a mountain in Scandanavia; equally, it has taken a while to find a ewe which works well on this place.”
A variety of crops are also grown to feed the flock, including swedes and stubble turnips.
While he admits he is just beginning to find his feet on the farm, he recognises the chance to enter the industry with a tenancy is not often replicated across the industry.
Aside from working on his own farm, he takes on a number of activities to give young farmers a voice.
“I really want to see young people do well in the industry and they need to be given a chance. I am so grateful to Penrhyn Estates for the chance they gave me. I came in when I was 24 and Carter Jonas gave me a chance.
“It is nice to see and if I can give something back I will.”
Michael serves as the Farmers Union of Wales’s regional young livestock representative, but his activities to aid the industry have also taken on a more militant nature.
Last year, Michael and several North Wales farmers protested at various English and Welsh retailers – including Asda, Tesco and The Co-operative – over their attitude to New Zealand sourcing, as well as the falling cost of beef and lamb.
“Tesco and The Co-operative have been understanding. Asda have not even bothered communicating with the group,” he says.
Following the discussions, Tesco agreed to trial a cost of production model for 100 lamb farmers.
“Whatever retailers come up with, there will be people who will praise it and people who will knock it down. Farmers need to stick together and unite a bit more.
“I would like to see the cost of production model targeted at young people,” he adds. “It would give them stability to grow and learn on their feet.”
Looking at his own business, following an investment into a 90 by 50 (WHAT - ft or metres?) lambing shed last year, Michael hopes to put up a further shed in the coming months.
Another key objective is to increase the scale of the cattle operation.
“I would like to get to 25-30. I think the cattle and the sheep complement each other well,” he says.
As a first generation young entrant to the farm industry, Michael sees wider problems than supply chain relationships with farmers.
“Maybe the industry needs to get away from selling these legs of lamb. We will make a stir fry with chicken and eat steak but when it is done well you cannot beat minted lamb.
“Supermarkets have access to the top chefs and have to educate people and do something with different cuts of meat.”