Taking over the reins is every young farmer’s dream, but it also brings responsibilities and not only at home. Barry Alston reports from Pembrokeshire.
With the latest crop of NFU county chairmen now in post, they can only hope their term of office will be far less traumatic than that of their immediate predecessors.
Whether it involved milk, beef or lamb, the ongoing challenges of the past 12 months has seen crisis meetings and a seemingly never-ending stream of survival telephone calls from worried fellow farmers.
It is certainly not a role which would suit everyone and it helps to have background experience of positive thinking and successfully building up a family business from a low base.
Simon Richards, NFU Cymru’s Pembrokeshire county chairman for the past 12 months, has first-hand experience of just that.
He was just 18 when he was made a partner in his parents’ dairy farm only two years after leaving school.
He says: “My father gave me a free-rein. He sat me down and told me the business was mine to do as I saw fit.
“When you are involved to such an extent from an early age, you make your mistakes early on.
“Having the responsibility makes you aware of decisions which have to be made and options which must be considered.
“With interest rates at 12-15 per cent back then, it made me careful about how I spent money. Some people might even call it frugal.
“But having to make what could be life-changing decisions is what gave me the confidence to take on the NFU role.”
Numbers for the farm's dairy herd have increased gradually and it now consists of 230 cubicle-housed milkers, mostly commercial Frisians, but with a few Jersey cross-breds as well
Spanning more than 100 years, Simon is the third generation of his family to farm at Little Hasguard, which lies within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, near Haverfordwest.
It amounted to 71 hectares (175 acres) when purchased from the Kensington estate by his great-grandfather in November 1914, for a sum of just more than £64/ha (£26/acre), and was even a dairy farm in those days.
Today, Simon co-farms with his wife Alison, who looks after calf rearing and paperwork.
They have three daughters and, turning the clock back by following in his father’s footsteps, 17-year-old son John is now working on-farm, while also studying at Gelli Aur Agricultural College.
Simon has no doubt the young people coming into dairying, at what is such a challenging time for the sector, will be among the best farmers.
He says: “Anyone can make money when the milk price is 34ppl, but to run a business when you are only getting 20ppl or less is a whole different ball game.”
He values his stint as a county chairman, not least for providing him with a better insight into the political side of the industry and problems facing other sectors.
One factor on his side was the fact national president Meurig Raymond and NFU Cymru president Stephen James were farming locally to him.
Simon says: “If I did not know the answer to a problem, I knew two people who would.”
A 24/48 herringbone swingover parlour was installed 11 years ago and the average yield stands at 5,500 litres with 4.5 per cent butterfat and 3.5 per cent protein
Run as a traditional all-grass system, rotationally grazed with the use of electric fencing and regular reseeding, Little Hasguard has seen further blocks of about 14ha (36 acres) and 15ha (38 acres) added over the past 20 years, taking the total owned farming area to 101ha (250 acres). A small additional area is also rented for youngstock.
The farm now carries a dairy herd of 230 cubicle-housed milkers, mostly commercial Friesians, but with a few Jersey cross-breds as well.
He says: “Looking back, we had just 35 cows when I left school, and when quotas came along in 1984, we still only had 50. It was time to move with the times.”
The old traditional cowshed with its pipeline milking had, however, been replaced by a six-stall abreast parlour in 1975 and then, as herd numbers increased, a second-hand 10/20 herringbone unit was installed in 1989.
A ‘no-frills’ 24/48 version went in 11 years ago, until 1982, which saw the arrival of a cubicle building for 80.
Most cows were out-wintered and in terms of health have been free of bovine TB for the past 10 years – considered to be down to running a stress-free system.
Originally calving all-year-round, a switch was made to spring-calving a few years ago and the herd is now dried off each year by the end of November. About 85 per cent calve again within a nine-week run during February and March, and are culled as and when needed to maintain a tight calving pattern.
The average yield with twice-a-day milking stands at 5,500 litres at 4.5 per cent butterfat and 3.5 per cent protein from a concentrate use of about one-tonne of parlour-fed purchased feed.
All cows are turned out to quality grass by day as they calve, the farm being a former regional grassland competition winner, and grass silage forms the basis of short winter fodder needs.
Simon says: “The farm grows grass well with free-draining soil which keeps moisture, so we are able to grow a lot of grass in a summer like the one we had last year.”
Contractors are used for silage making, slurry spreading and hedgecutting and to keep on top of potential lameness issues, a professional foot trimmer checks cows at drying off time, treating maybe three-quarters of the herd.
Sufficient replacement heifers – 40-50 each year – are reared, with remaining cows put to beef bulls, either British Blue or Hereford, and progeny sold as strong stores.
Alison looks after the calf rearing unit, as well as managing the business' paperwork
Little Hasguard Farm is located within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, near Haverfordwest
Milk is supplied to First Milk, and to counter low prices, some of the ‘B’ milk supply is being used to rear beef calves.
As with other First Milk producers, the family has been feeling the pain of low milk prices and does not believe paying some producers on aligned contracts a higher price will necessarily help the industry recover.
Simon says: “My deep-seated concern is it will only delay the upturn, because farmers on aligned contracts are in a position to expand, but the rest of us cannot.
“It must be accepted the milk market is oversupplied, and if there is so much milk in the market, you cannot prop up the price artificially.
Readjustment has got to happen naturally.
“It would be nice if I was on a contract which gave me 30ppl, but few farmers are in that position.
“When producers got to know quotas were coming off, they made a commitment to expand and inseminated with black and white bulls.
“We cannot now turn the tap off. The 31 years of milk quotas gave an element of stability which has now gone out of the window. There is now a fine balance between production and demand.
“The only control we have left is price and it is a pretty blunt instrument to use.
“Sadly, it is likely to be producers which did not expand and have therefore not contributed to the oversupply situation who might not make it through the current crisis.”
Simon is concerned farmers are still in expansion mode.
He says: “We have all been conditioned into believing there is a demand for milk in a world with a rapidly growing population, but it is no good producing more milk unless someone is going to pay for it.
“Producing about a million litres annually as a family, we have to plan our business years in advance and overall profitability today strikes a fine balance.
“Where we go from here is now a matter for John. He and other next generation producers are the future.”