Rhian and Neil Dillon are a force to be reckoned with in the showring. Without their own farm and while keeping full time jobs, they say they do it for the love. Laura Bowyer reports.
After deciding to pursue a career in teaching and with her father ready to retire, Rhian and her family decided it was time to sell their Breconshire-based family farm in 2003.
Over in Herefordshire, Neil Dillon, whose father was a farm manager, was encouraged to learn another trade by both of his parents, so went to Hereford College, qualifying in the catering trade.
After crossing the border over the River Wye into Wales and settling in Breconshire with a friend, it was at a Brecknock YFC drama competition where Neil and Rhian met.
In 2010, the year Rhian was also county chairman of Brecknock YFC, the pair got married and together they grew Neil’s existing sheep flock, which he had run for many years.
These days, Neil and Rhian live on the edge of Brecon with their two sheep-mad sons Iestyn, six, and Iwan, four. They rent two hectares (five acres) and a shed at Battle Fawr, Battle, a few miles from their townhouse, and the arrangement works.
Neil’s catering business, Golden Valley Catering, takes up most of his time, although it gives him flexibility to carry out sheep work when required, while Rhian is a special needs teacher at Builth Wells High School.
Neil has opted for the Badger Face breed for years and operates his flock under the Ganold prefix. He favours the Torddu variety, but they also keep Blue Texels and Beltex.
He says: “I believe they are more profitable and pay a bigger role at winter fairs, as well as some cross-breds.
“We breed their own ewe replacements and sell some of the surplus, with Llandovery’s coloured sale being a big outlet for the family.
“It is our main shop window and we also purchase some replacement Badger Faces and Blue Texels from this sale.”
With an amount of commercial cross-breds for prime lamb production, they sell through Hereford Market.
Rhian says: “If we send lambs to market, we all go for the day out and try and coincide it with school holidays.”
Last year, the couple bought two Beltex tups from Matt Turner, Cross Ash, Monmouthshire, and a Blue Texel ram lamb from Hywel and Enfys Williams, Llanddeusant, Carmarthenshire, and are pleased with their purchases.
Badger Face and Blue Texel tups are bought from the NSA ram sale at Builth or Llandovery’s coloured sheep sale.
Neil says: “We are not out to sell a lot of rams, but we sell a couple of tups per year. Entering carcase competitions is a good way of marketing stock.”
Attending more than a dozen shows per year, Rhian and Neil have had their fair share of success and, for the past two years, have received the Gwynne Griffiths, Tregaer Award, which is presented to the livestock exhibitor gaining the most points at Breconshire shows in a year.
Rhian says: “We started the show season with the intention of winning the award, but the main reason of going to shows is to support them. It is also a safe environment for the boys, and they love going.”
Through winter, some ewe lambs are sent away to Carmarthenshire on tack with Neil’s friend’s sheep.
The couple’s minds turn to show season in February and they shear at the end of January. Local young farmer Christie Joseph trim’s the family’s show sheep and visits at the start of June to begin his work.
This year, they are lambing earlier from mid-February to ensure lambs are a bit bigger for summer shows. For the past two years, the Dillons have sponged ewes to tighten their lambing window, trying to get them into a week’s window to lamb in when the catering business is quiet.
The family artificially inseminated five Beltex ewes with semen acquired from Rob Rattray, Aberystwyth, with the hopes of getting a nice tup lamb this year to use on their flock in the future.
This year they scanned at 140 per cent and Neil says they would rather have a good strong single than lots of twins and triplets.
Rhian adds: “We are after quality, not quantity.”
All concentrates and straw is purchased, but Neil owns a field in Dorstone, Herefordshire, where he grew up, and they are able to make enough silage here for their sheep, taking one cut.
The Royal Three Counties Show kicks off show season for the family, although this year, Neil will be judging the Torddu classes at the Royal Welsh Spring Festival.
The family may well look familiar, having starred on BBC’s Farmers Country Showdown, after being put forward by the Badger Face Sheep Society.
Rhian says: “We had two Skype interviews and assumed nothing was going to come of it, but then we had a call saying they wanted to feature us in the programme.
“They came to the house and we took them to see the sheep. They spent Wednesday of Pembrokeshire Show with us.
“It was a great experience; one the children will never forget. We are very proud of how the programme came across.”
Neil says: “I enjoy both summer and winter shows, but I would say my passion is preparing lambs for winter fairs.
“Our dream really is to have our own farm, but the price of land is high, so we will keep doing what we are doing.”