Realising that to make any sort of living, Owen Watkins found a job outside of the farm and has since used that extra income to help progress the business. Barry Alston reports.
A yearning to farm was sealed for Owen Watkins when, as a six-year-old schoolboy, he dipped into his pocket money savings to buy his first pure bred Texel ewe.
It cost him £150, but 25 years on that single purchase has turned into a 70-strong pedigree flock run alongside 650 commercial ewes and 50 suckler cows.
His standard of management has since earned him the coveted NFU Cymru-NFU Mutual Welsh Livestock Champion of the Year Award at last year’s Royal Welsh Winter Fair.
In the words of the judges, ‘his stockmanship skills and passion for the livestock industry are outstanding – both essential elements of running a successful business enterprise.’
But for Owen, who farms Caenantmelyn, a beef and sheep holding in the Brecon Beacons National Park foothills of the Black Mountains close to the English border, near Hay-on-Wye, farming is not his only way of life.
Owen says” “When I left school in 2004 I enrolled on a two-day-a-week agricultural course at Brecon’s Coleg Powys.
“But with my parents, Philip and Ann, only farming 82 hectares and keeping 40 sucklers and 300 ewes, working full-time on the farm was not a viable option. An additional income source was a necessity.
“With no capital outlay being needed, I started working for a local builder on a part-time basis, three days a week. It was meant to be short-term, but 10 years down the line I’m still doing it.
You could say it is my diversification venture and, given the amount of work builders have on their books, it is something any farmer’s son with a few tools could put their hands to.
“In my case, the boss picks me up from the centre of Hay, which means I have very little outlay and the income is well worth having.
“More importantly, it has helped us grow the farm. We have bought an adjoining 20ha and been able to rent another 68ha which, for the past eight years, has meant we have been farming 171ha, running from 600 feet to 1,400 feet at the highest point.”
Since he was 20, Owen has been a full partner in the farm with his father and been given a free hand to consolidate and develop what was considered to be a traditional Breconshire beef and sheep upland holding. That is not, however, the case today.
“The suckler cows are predominantly Limousin and Limousin cross British Blues which go to one of our two high merit stock bulls – one a pedigree Limousin and the other a pedigree British Blue,” Owen says.
“Having undertaken an AI course, all the heifers are put to an Aberdeen-Angus.
“For a time, we were marketing all the calves either as bull beef or as finished heifers, but for the past few years each May, we have been buying in around 18 strong heifer calves from local markets to bucket rear and graze with our home bred heifers.
“These days, our home bred calves are sold as stores through Brecon market, while the bucket ones are still finished and sold deadweight to ABP Shrewsbury.
“Calving is spread 50/50 over the spring and autumn, with the spring-born calvers going away at 12-13 months old and the autumn born ones at 16-18 months. We split the calving mainly for management purposes, but it also provides two income bites.
“The spring calves go out to grass at the point of calving and all the cattle are housed from October onwards. That depends on ground conditions, given that we are on red soil which easily poaches and a high rainfall level.
“Winter feed is based around ring feeder fed, ad lib pit silage, mixed with some home grown barley we grow each year as part of a grassland reseeding policy.
“We are also using a bought-in, locally produced ration made up of wheat, barley, oats and cracker meal fed at a 6kg per day rate during a 90-day finishing period.”
The aim is to get the bucket reared calves, which are predominantly Limousin or Blue crosses bought as three-week olds, away at 290-300 kg in 18-20 months, and they are achieving that.
But, says Owen, like most suckled calf producers making a profit can be difficult.
They do it, though, by not running expensive kit. There is no mixer wagon or a big straw chopper and, instead, they concentrate on producing quality carcases by using genetics.
“It also means being ruthless when it comes to culling,” he says.
“You just cannot keep cows that do not get back in calf easily. I am not sentimental and if they do not perform, away they go. There are no second chances.
“My cows have to be well-balanced, not too extreme, with a good top line and loin, as well as having plenty of milk.
“When looking for a bull, I will go to see them in their natural surroundings alongside the type of offspring they are producing.”
Turnout is usually at the end of April to early May, but use is made of re-usable calf coats for around the first three weeks to protect against low night-time temperatures.
The sheep enterprise is being run just as efficiently, with that first Texel purchase at the main NSA Cymru Builth Wells sale being a yearling from the Quick family’s Devon-based Loosebeare flock.
The now fully registered Caenantmelyn flock is kept pure, producing pedigree tups and ewes for sale and notably winning the Texel championship at the NSA ram sale two years ago.
“At the 2017 sale, we sold 15 tups there to a 3,000gns top and an overall average of 1,050gns,” says Owen.
The commercial flock is made up of Texel cross white faced Welsh Mules, with their Texel-sired finished lambs being sold deadweight to the Merthyr Tydfil-based Kepak abattoir.
“To produce our replacements, we buy in about 30 yearling Welsh Mules every year at the Builth Wells society sale, and always from the same source. They go to our selected Texel tups,” Owen says.
“All the Mule cross twin lambs are ear notched at birth and potential replacements will come from this group, but ones out of ewes that may have prolapsed, or have anything else that does not match our criteria, are discarded.”
The pedigree ewes lamb in mid-February, while the main lambing runs from March 9 to mid-April in purpose-built housing. To catch the local Easter market for new season lambs, around 50 five-year-old ewes lamb in January before being culled.
All non-breeding lambs go off in weekly batches of 40 to Merthyr Tydfil, with single lambs mostly being sold of grass before they are weaned, followed by the twins and triplets.
“The priority is to keep the ewes in good condition, which means she lambs down with plenty of colostrum to help keep diseases at bay,” says Owen.
“Around 10 per cent of the lambs are grading at R with the rest as E and U with deadweights of 20.2-20.3kg across-the-board, meeting our goal of producing as many finished lambs as possible that look the same on the hook.
“We sold a batch of 220 lambs in October that finished within 300 grams and 30p of each other. To my mind, that is the consistency the Texel brings.
“We cull just as hard with the sheep as with the cattle, keeping an eye on both age and condition.
“We do find the white faced Welsh Mules maintain their teeth better, but apart from the five-year-old ewes lambing for the Easter market and the pedigree ewes, four crops is our limit.”
Three years ago, Owen was Breconshire YFC county chairman and he is currently club leader of his local Llanigon YFC.
But what of the future for Caenantmelyn?
“Being so close to Hay-on-Wye, with its worldwide popularity for books and festival attractions, tourism would seem to be the ideal diversification activity,” says Owen.
“But our narrow single-track access road rules that avenue out. A procession of cars and caravans would be a nightmare.
“Any further expansion of cattle or sheep numbers would also be entirely down to whether more land could be acquired.
“We are fairly stable as we are at the moment and one of the reasons why I am maintaining my building work involvement.
“While I was at school, all I ever wanted was to be a farmer. I never contemplated that I would also become a builder.
“As always, cutting costs in order to make a decent living is what today’s farming has become all about, but also the need to generate extra income.
“Even if I was able to expand to say 1,000 acres and I had a son, I would still be sending him out to work.
“It does give you a different perspective on life, and while my building work does provide additional income and enabled the family to expand the farm, it is also something I really enjoy.”