Having taken on the farm from his father, Huw Davies made some significant changes to the family business. But of late, he is utilising his digital skills to drive extra income back into the farm. Barry Alston reports.
First and foremost, Huw Davies is a sheep farmer, but his way of bolstering returns on his North Carmarthenshire hill farm is pretty rare.
Better known as Huw Llandre, his diversification approach revolves around putting his personal business skills to good use off the farm, for the benefit of the family and the wider industry.
He readily admits, however, that without his long list of public and private activities and the income they generate, financial viability on what is a 113ha (279 acres) Carmarthenshire holding would have been more difficult with a growing family.
Farming with his wife, Sheila, he is the third generation of the Davies family to farm Llandre, a National Trust holding on the Dolaucothi Estate at Cwrt-y-Cadno, near Pumsaint.
His grandfather took on the tenancy in 1947, but at the age of 21, Huw completed his studies at the Welsh Agricultural College and joined his parents, Glyn and Doris, as a partner in the business.
They retired when he married Sheila, a farmer’s daughter from the Erwood area of the neighbouring county of Breconshire.
“We were left to fend for ourselves,” says Huw. “Father said that while he did not want to be committed to the farm, he wanted to be able to come back to help out.
“He did just that until earlier last year when sadly he passed away.
“When we took on the farm, we were milking cows but struggling to make a decent return on the work involved. It was a case of taking a close look at the business and the income it was generating.
“Even though we had a fairly modern set-up, we quickly realised that no matter how hard we worked, if we did not buy or rent more ground to expand the herd, we could never improve our income.
“We took the decision that because of the layout of the farm, with its three hills rising to more than 1,000 feet, the holding was more in tune with lamb production than dairying.
“So, the 28 commercial milkers were sold in 2001, leaving us to concentrate on maximising the returns from what then was a flock of 650 ewes.”
But that was not the only change in direction.
His agricultural education and further development of his business skills, especially within the emerging world of IT, found him in demand from a wide range of agriculturally associated activities.While Sheila took on a much greater hands-on role in the day-to-day running of the farm, Huw took on a variety of roles which by way of a salary helped to greatly boost family income.
Among his first appointments was as a software trainer for the Wales-based Menter a Busnes farm development body, before becoming an Agrisgop leader and then taking up a training post within National Milk Records.
Since then, demands for his professional skills have snowballed, leading to an advisory role to the owners of the Dunbia meat processing company, and recently as a business development manager for the Agriwebb farm software business.
Other off-farm activities include being a board member of both the Welsh red meat levy body, Hybu Cig Cymru, and the National Fallen Stock Company, and sitting as an independent member of the Brexit Round Table Stakeholder Group set up by the Welsh Government’s Rural Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths.
“No two weeks are the same,” says Huw. “Last year, I had a contract in Russia helping a large agribusiness develop a sheep enterprise with an all-year-round indoor lambing system, and other overseas visits have included Toronto and Washington.”
One deep seated concern he did have about pursuing his off-farm activities, however, was how well would it go down with his fellow farmers, given the staunch stay-at-home feelings commonly held within many traditional Welsh family farming circles.
He says: “Gradually that attitude has changed and for the better.
“Working off the farm has added to our income, broadened our horizons and, in my view, provided the industry with a wider practical farming presence.”
Above all he is proud to be a sheep farmer with the industry’s best interests at his heart, including having played a leading role in establishing what was a pioneering lamb marketing group using the locally based Dolaucothi gold mine tourist attraction as “gold star” branding.
At its peak, eight farms came together as an Agrisgop group and over a 15-year period, thousands of Dolaucothi valley lambs found their way on to the shelves of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s.
The initiative only came to an end by mutual agreement, following changes in the supermarket’s buying policy.
Today Llandre’s sheep flock stands at 500 ewes, with numbers having been reduced because, says Huw, both him and Sheila turned 55 this year, and it was a tough lambing down to the extreme weather conditions.
But while numbers are lower, the size of ewe size increased with a switch from the Highlander to Aberfield.
Lambing is spread over a three-week period starting from the second week in March after traditionally having been housed from the end of December. But following concerns about the cost of straw bedding, 4ha (10 acres) of root crops have been grown this year to provide grazing until mid-February.
Lambs are sold deadweight through Dunbia with this year’s crop, which scanned at 180 per cent, realising an average weight of 18.2 kg, mostly carrying U and R grades.
Contractors are employed to carry out the mechanical jobs, such as spreading a single application of fertiliser at 50 kilogram per hectare in late February, hedge trimming, shearing and making around 24 ha (60 acres) of clamped grass silage. Around 4 ha (10 acres) of grassland are being reseeded each year.
As well as off-farm diversification, there have also been some on-farm income generating initiatives, with winter indoor housing being provided on a tack basis for dairy youngstock and beef cattle, while a redundant farm building has been converted into a holiday cottage.
An additional responsibility this year has seen Huw taking on NFU Cymru’s Carmarthenshire county chairmanship – a role which has put him out of sorts with the Welsh Government’s consultation on the future direction of industry support payments.
“We await the spring outcome of that, but along with the overwhelming majority of NFU members in Wales, I disagree with Government’s view that food production is not a public good,” says Huw.
“The Welsh countryside is truly beautiful and well cared for entirely down to the presence of livestock, not despite it. We take pride in our landscapes and our farms.
“Take the sheep out of the hills and within a year or two they will revert to scrub. There is little doubt that farming and food production are critical to the survival of our rural communities.
“I believe that given the right message, the tax payer will be happy to support what we do.
“The NFU has a crucial role to play in this with lobbying, negotiation and dialogue going on behind the scenes but it is important that farmers themselves also play their part by talking directly to people to get the message across.”
With daughters Fflur, Siwan and Delun and two sons-in-law Chris and Daryl all following professional careers and unlikely to carry on farming at Llandre, it will be the end of an era when Huw and Sheila finally step back from the tenancy.
They have no regrets over the direction they have chosen to take though and are proud to have been able to maintain a family farm in good heart for another generation to follow on.
“In the 1960s, nearly every other farm in the Cothi Valley, Llandre was producing milk. Now there is only one dairy farm,” says Huw.
“Everyone should go through life doing their best for their family and that means looking at all your skills and never being afraid to change direction. I try to be a man of value and add value to everything I do.”