Having now retired from his rugby refereeing career, Nigel Owens is busy developing his own farm in west Wales, with pedigree Hereford cattle at the core of his operation. Laura Bowyer finds out more.
There are many things Nigel Owens can claim to his name – the record number of rugby union test matches refereed, an MBE, being a household name in a profession where few are, patron of many valued charities.
Now he can add to that list the Mairwen herd of pedigree Herefords he keeps at his holding in the Gwendraeth Valley, Carmarthenshire.
Despite enjoying an exciting career which saw him travel the world, mixing with some of the rugby greats and officiating some of the most memorable sporting moments, Nigel says his first love has always been farming.
Having grown up on his grandparents’ smallholding in Mynyddcerrig near Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire, the family broke-in horses when Nigel was small, often, he recalls, with him on their backs.
Nigel says: “I also spent a lot of time helping at Tyrgarn Farm, which was just behind my grandparents’, and grew up with the late Dewi Morgan and his family.
“This is where I really fell in love with farming the first time.”
After working on his uncle’s dairy farm nearby in his teenage years, Nigel went to Gelli Aur College, Llandeilo, to study a Youth Training Scheme qualification in agriculture, while also working on local dairy farm, the Wern, in Drefach.
From the age of 16, he was also progressing with his refereeing at a grass-roots level, although it wasn’t always the position he occupied on the pitch.
Explaining how he took up the role of referee, Nigel says: “We were playing rugby at school, Ysgol Maes Yr Yrfa, and I was playing full-back.
“We had not won a match all season and, after two tries by our side, we had a conversion to take.
“I thought this was going to be my moment of glory and I said to my mate, who was the captain, that I would take the kick.
“It was right in front of the posts, but the ball ended up more in the direction of the corner flag and because of that, we drew 12-12.
“My schoolteacher, the late John Beynon, who was a great man, said, ‘Nigel, why don’t you go and ref or something’, and that’s what I did. It all went from there.”
He also recalls fondly what drew to Hereford cattle originally.
“I remember when I was a young boy, my grandparents took me for a drive and we passed some cattle.
“My grandfather said then that there was no better sight than a field of Herefords grazing. That has always stayed in my mind.
“There was also a Hereford bull on my uncle’s dairy farm which we used to sit on as children as it was just so docile.”
“My grandfather said that there was no better sight than a field of Herefords grazing. That has always stayed in my mind”
Of course, for a man synonymous with Wales, some patriots may question his bovine choice.
Nigel explains with a smile: “I was at the Winter Fair in Builth and headed to the Hereford stand. The Welsh Blacks were opposite.
“As I passed, someone stopped me and told me as a Welshman I should be keeping a Welsh breed.
“I explained to them, firstly, Herefords are red, like the dragon of Wales, and Hereford used to be in Wales before the English took it, so actually it is a Welsh breed.”
Nigel says he had always planned to have his own smallholding and after saving up and badgering the owner of the ground his house adjoins, he secured five hectares (13 acres) in the summer of 2018, which was followed by the opportunity to purchase 6ha (15 acres) down the road in early 2019.
A few months later, an opportunity arose to purchase a smallholding just two miles up the road, consisting of 24.2ha (60 acres), a traditional farmhouse and out-buildings.
“Nothing had been done to improve the farm for the past 30 years, so a huge amount of work has been carried out,” Nigel says.
“I have done fencing, drainage, a lot of work on the land as well as building a new shed to house the cattle up there.
“It has been a lot of hard work and cost to get things up to speed and is still an ongoing project.
“Even on the ground next to my house, I have done groundwork, put a drive in, reseeded some of the ground, put up two sheds and fenced the whole lot.”
After returning from Japan following the 2019 World Cup, Nigel got to work with the Hereford breed.
With a string of influential herd dispersal sales in late 2019 and into 2020, including Rodbaston, Greenyards and Kilvrough, he was able to make some quality purchases in a much quicker time than anticipated.
His first purchases came in the form of four heifers from the Rodbaston dispersal sale and horned bull, Creuddyn Goliath, from his cousin Gwyndaf Davies, based near Lampeter, Ceredigion.
Soon after, he purchased four more animals from Robin Quinn’s Brechfa herd in Nantgaredig, Carmarthenshire, and from Alun Richards’ Cellynnen herd, near Llandovery.
Dendor 1 Sugar Ray has also joined the bull team, purchased at the inaugural Sires of the Future sale at Shrewsbury.
Nigel says he was purchased for his colour and markings and because he came from a quality home, being bred by D.E., E.D. and A.L. Jones, Caersws, Powys.
“Things have happened more quickly than I had anticipated,” says Nigel.
“It will take a while for me to understand what makes a good animal. I will weed out the lesser quality animals and breed from the best as I go along.”
He also explains that his Mairwen prefix took some consideration – it was his mother’s middle name – and Nigel adds he is not one to name something without a meaning.
Following his first cattle purchases, he took advantage of the few animals grazing on his recently purchased ground and made a good quantity of haylage that summer.
He is also pleased to have already sold his first bull which was due to leave the farm in January and was originally bought as a calf to a cow he purchased at a sale.
In terms of calving pattern, Nigel says he is still trying to decide what is the best system to suit him.
However, he says he enjoys calving and has been heard to say he finds it more nerve-wracking than refereeing a test match.
“Seeing a calf born gives me great satisfaction,” he says.
“I was perhaps trying to intervene too much before and now I try and leave them to get on with it. I have cameras in the shed so I can keep an eye on things.
“I was in Belfast once with a cow calving at home and I was watching her on my phone. She had the best calf I have bred yet, by Normanton 1 Laertes, and because of where I was, I named him Ulster.”
Moving forward, Nigel would like to sell off-farm, but is also keen to sell some at public auction and thinks he may also end up in the showring.
“I am doing this by myself, but my dad, my father-in-law and my partner, Barrie, are all really helpful,” he says.
“When I started planning, I wanted to sell the beef, which we know is of such high quality and use my name to help promote it, but when I started looking at it, my attention turned to pedigree breeding.
“This pandemic has meant I have travelled less and so I have been able to put more time into things here. When I get the race and crush sorted it will make things even easier.”
Away from his own holding, Nigel feels strongly about working to protect the reputation of the farming industry.
“Farming is getting a bad name and a lot of the information and images the public are being
fed are from overseas factory farms,” he says.
“Things need to change. The Hereford can play a part in generating sustainability stories as it is a native breed and very good at producing quality beef from very little.
“Personally, I do not want to overstock the ground here. It will have to have some fertiliser but I am not going to push it.
“I am also going to start working with a local school to educate the children about where their food comes from.”
Nigel is also the current president of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, after a five-year stint as president of the Wales Federation.
“I got so much from being a member of YFC, it is now my time to give something back and also highlight the work of the farming community to the wider public,” he says.
“I also want to try and open the movement up a bit and encourage those who do not have a farming background to join.”