Young farmer, Jim Ellis, is on a mission to up efficiency on his family farm in North Wales. He talks to Gaina Morgan about his desire to utilse today’s technology and adding value to the business.
Farmer and entrepreneur Jim Ellis, 24, first honed his business skills selling eggs to visitors at the farm’s self-catering accommodation on the Lleyn Peninsula, North Wales.
An Entrepreneurial Academy Award then took him to Gower College, Swansea, where he learned to refine his ideas and critically, the value of networking.
He loves farming with his parents, Evan and Kathryn Ellis, at Llwyndyrus Farm, Y Ffor, where the farm is flanked by the Snowdon range and the somewhat tamer mountains on the Lleyn.
It is wonderful grass growing country, with the farm rising to 300 feet above sea level, and 55 inches a year rainfall – an increase of seven to eight inches in the last five or six years.
Jim is keen on the cattle, bought in from local markets at 15 to 20 months, and is enthusiastic about the technology he has introduced to streamline the job and increase efficiency.
But he has ‘no interest at all’ in the sheep and, with the current uncertainties prevailing in the sector, the flock will be dispersed this summer.
There is not much sign of a dog or stick at Llwyndyrus. Instead, Jim is more likely to have a phone in one hand and a plate metre in the other.
The farm office is not only paperless, but recently his father was astonished at being ‘unable to find a biro’.
A businessman who farms, Jim is committed to the cattle enterprise. He’s building up to 400 head of store cattle, bought in during the spring and autumn and sold for prime beef to Morrisons and Dawn Meats.
He has also taken full advantage of grant aid available from the Welsh Government.
The farm is in Glastir, which delivers cash for environmental and other benefits, and the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Production provided a 40 per cent grant towards a new cattle handling shed.
It houses up to 130 head and the underfloor slurry system is designed to store the slurry for six months, to better comply with more stringent environmental regulations.
The slurry is emptied once a year, mixed with water and applied with a trailing shoe in February, for optimum benefit to the land.
Jim says: “I came home very ambitious to grow the farm and develop the property side of the business.
“I also wanted to grow the cattle side, so we put the cattle shed up to try and become more efficient.
The slatted floor in the cattle shed and the handling system means it’s not as time-consuming to do simple jobs.
“It has saved us cost-wise in not putting straw down. That can be very time-consuming.
“The good thing is that everything is on my phone and I can do so much from the one device.
“I can keep track of the weight gain of the cattle we finish over winter. Every two weeks we put them straight through the handling system straight from the shed.
“We weigh them to see how things are going. It’s a very fast process and we do 30 or 40 cattle in half an hour.
“Then we can adjust the blend we buy in to finish them accordingly. It’s a nice way of checking, we look at the tags and then feed them more if necessary.”
There are three batches of cattle. Those bought in at 15-20 months in the autumn graze for a month and are then housed, with the older cattle pushed with a blend added to the silage and sold the following January/February.
The younger cattle go back out to graze with the cattle bought in the spring to finish on grass the following autumn, from September until November. They are all sold at under 30 months.
The home-grown silage is cut once a year, with contractors brought in to harvest the 100 acres.
They always crop at the end of June, because the aftermath is so valuable in fattening the cattle from July until October.
“You’re saving in machinery costs, but you’re also saving in labour,” Jim says.
“We’ve got good people we trust to cut at the optimum time once a year.
“We’ve been traditionally grazing, but lately I’ve been introduced to rotational grazing, where we have some of them on one block and move them every few days.”
Reseeding 8-10 hectares (20-25 acres) each year involves ploughing, sowing rape, turnips and Italian ryegrass in the first year for fattening store lambs.
The Italian ryegrass remains and helps the silage crop in the second year, followed by surface reseeding with permanent grasses to fully benefit from the manure.
Jim is using a more modified version of the system deployed by dairy farmers. He uses the plate meter to assess grass growth and moving them every three days to keep above 1,500kgs of dry matter, wryly noting that in no other business would you guess the quality of an input.
But he is realistic. This year’s great grass growing means it’s difficult to keep ahead of growth.
The cattle are moved every three days, with an electric fence used to confine them to 2ha (5-acre plots).
“We’ve tried our first electric fence, inspired by what the dairy farmers are doing,” Jim says.
“Beef and sheep seem to be so far behind. I’m not sure how it will work with fattening beef cattle off grass.”
The cattle are sold in batches to Morrisons and Dawn Meats. It’s a frustration to Jim’s precise, business focused mind that the weights demanded change from time to time.
He and his father, Evan, look for cattle which will grow well on their grass-based system, buying from clean TB areas wherever possible.
They aim for Charolais cattle which will kill out as near 400kgs as possible, aiming for R and U grades, 4L.
They feel ‘middle of the road’ cattle thrive with a minimum of bought-in feed on their system and favour heifers which are lighter boned and easier to fatten where possible.
The 15p/kg bonus is only paid up to 400kg and worth £60 a beast.
Jim and his father buy cattle from across North Wales, with the main criteria that each purchase will add value and make money.
It’s not an easy judgement and Jim says he’s still learning from his father. The net result is a mix of breeds, Charolais, Welsh Black and Limousin.
Alongside, Jim has multiple other ventures. His video, media and social media business involves advising farmers and other rural businesses on technology and new models for modern business.
He has also made marketing videos for, among other prestigious clients, the nearby Glynllifon Agricultural College.
Jim also applies his knowledge and talents to marketing the family holiday business, spending considerable amounts of time ‘on his phone’. The Instagram account, with 5,000 followers, is a key marketing tool.
The converted stone farm buildings next to the family farmhouse are part of a long-established holiday business sleeping 24 in total.
A spa and alternative treatment centre were introduced in 2008 and solar panels reduce heating costs and bring in a Renewable Heat Incentive income.
New this year is Plas Gwyn, a restored Grade Two 16th century farmhouse. It has been converted to the highest spec, to attract high end clients.
A key feature is a totally glass and black zinc extension. The state-of-the-art Sigma kitchen has a polished concrete floor and affords panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
Another project he is working on is an energy drink, devised by Jim as a more natural alternative to caffeinated drinks.
Lafa, the Welsh word for lava, is made from natural ingredients, is chemical free and will retail at a competitive price.
Crucially, Jim feels it is free of the constraints that govern the other businesses. It doesn’t need a big investment, relying instead on buying processing time in a local factory.
Production can be ramped up or scaled down according to demand, with that demand largely driven by Jim’s phone as he markets on Amazon and other online platforms.
The result is an almost seamless fusion of traditional farming on the Lleyn Peninsula and a modern, 21st century approach to business.