Looking at efficiency to future-proof his farm was at the top of Bleddyn Davies’ priority list. Gaina Morgan meets him to find out what changes he has made.
Tweaking certain areas of the business has made an overall impact on Bleddyn Davies’ farm, which sits just inland from Cardigan Bay. Rotational grazing and connecting consumers to the produce are just two key focuses for the former National Sheep Association young ambassador who farms alongside his parents, John and Audrey, whom he praises for always having been forward-thinking in their approach.
The family mob graze their 700 ewes across 154 hectares (380 acres), which is a mix of owned and rented land. They rotationally graze their herd of 25 suckler cows, British Blues and Limousin cross cows out of dairy going back to a Limousin bull, with weaned calves sold at local markets. Forty dairy cross Aberdeen-Angus and Hereford beef calves are also sold as finished or stores. Bleddyn began rotational grazing following Farming Connect’s Prosper from Pasture Programme, aware that, despite current high lamb prices, every farmer must cut costs.
Added benefits include cost savings on fertiliser and concentrates, and improved silage means he does not feed the housed in-lamb ewes concentrates, instead relying on silage for singles and just soya with the silage for those with twins.
Initial results on a ryegrass ley with red clover also showed more grass could be grown without fertiliser. He says: “We started rotational grazing and we did the same with the fattening lambs in 2018, but we did it with the ewes and lambs as well, once the lambs were three to four weeks old. That made a massive difference. We only did that for one bunch, so when the winter came, we had quite a lot of grass. Basically, they had the run of the top field, which is about 110 acres. We would take a bit of silage up there.
“We tried feeding fodder beet to them, but as we had enough grass, I was tempted to go with an all-grass rotation just to see if it worked. It did. We didn’t have to carry a bale up to them. We didn’t have to buy any feed, any fodder beet or anything in. They held condition and came in about two weeks pre-lambing in good condition and the last fields were rested from the end of February until the end of May.”
Now in their third year, they used a third of the usual amount of fertiliser last year. They do not buy any concentrates to finish the lambs, which are sold direct to Dunbia, and they get 100 or more lambs away pre-weaning, at 10 to 12 weeks. He also sells boxed lamb, as well as Welsh cross Pietrain weaners raised for pork and bacon, to the seasonal tourist population as well as to neighbours. The aim is to improve lambing percentages and the latest figures show the Welsh with an average of 140 per cent, the Aberfield cross Welsh at 178 per cent and a barren rate of just over 1 per cent on the ewes and slightly higher on the yearlings.
“It’s just better growth rates. They’ve always got that fresh bite of grass in front of them and they’re moved every three days,” he says.
“It’s more palatable. It’s full of energy and we aim to get everything away sub-200 days, just to rest the fields and give the ewes more priority. They are the priority stock.”
The farm rises from 213 metres to 304m above sea level (700-1,000 feet) and wild weather blasts straight across from the Irish Sea. The hill which has not been ploughed in his Farm facts father’s time, has improved, but with 1,250mm annual rainfall, Bleddyn says that ‘if you get up in the morning and it’s raining, you’ve got no choice but to go out and move the sheep or they will move themselves’.
Even so, the Welsh Mountain ewes failed to respect the electric fence this winter. He had to give up and let them have the whole 14ha (35-acre) field. The worst offenders were removed at scanning and the others have since reverted to rotational grazing behind electric fencing.
Ruefully, Bleddyn says: “I think when you do set it up you always have to have plan A, B, C, D and E, because you never know what the weather is going to chuck at you. You don’t know what the sheep are going to do either. In theory, I had enough grass until two or three days before lambing. But theory doesn’t always play out.
“In practical terms, we’ve run out of grass two and a half weeks pre-lambing now. It’s due to weather mostly. It was so wet this year, they were trampling the grass in.”
He measures the grass with a plate meter and divides the grazing into 1ha (0.4-acre) blocks through the winter, moving the whole 700 ewes every two to three days.
Success with the new grazing systems prompted the family to reassess other aspects of their farming. The pastures appear cleaner with a lot fewer weeds, probably because the sheep eat the weeds at a younger stage, meaning a fewer thistles and nettles, resulting in better grass and better forage.
“You challenge the grass in a way,” Bleddyn says.
“The best grass always comes back, so the amount of ryegrass in the swards has increased. This is without having additional fertiliser on most of the time. We’ve seen pastures healthier, stronger and grow better grass, but that’s probably because the soil now gets more rest. It’s not set stocked all year round and that’s healthier. There are probably more worms, too.
“Stock-wise, we’ve been able to keep them more tightly together, with ewes in mobs of 250 when they’re out with the lambs on an area of 16 hectares, subdivided into two-hectare blocks, moving every three to four days depending on grass growth and weather. When the lambs are weaned and on to the red clover ley, there will be 350 lambs on just short of eight hectares.
“The red clover survival is better, because it’s being grazed down to the crown. It bounces back up straight away, keeping the sward healthier with more red clover in it. We try to make best use of the farmyard manure from the sucklers and the sheep here, and the slurry we’ve got. We do try to cut those costs we can control, without harming anything.”
A large, airy, lambing shed houses as many as 700 ewes and attention to hygiene is scrupulous, helping to reduce antibiotic usage. The family has also begun using recycled plastic pens. The main block start lambing on March 12, having been brought in between a week and a fortnight before, depending on weather and grass. The yearlings start 10 days later and the ewe lambs on April 1.
Leaving them out as long as possible, he says, cuts forage requirements, in terms of big bales and also concentrates. Last year it meant a saving of nearly £6 a head on lambing costs. This year there were 690 ewes and 75 ewe lambs ready to lamb.
Bleddyn and his family appreciate the improved job satisfaction, the plentiful green grass, as well as benefits to the bottom line. They are ready to meet new challenges and to develop direct sales as life opens up after the pandemic.