Wales has two things in abundance – hills and rain. Barry Alston meets up with a beef and sheep farming couple making use of both to generate additional income.
For most upland livestock farmers in sparsely populated areas, there is little alternative but to keep sheep and suckler cows – unless there happens to be a stream running through the land.
Jolyon and Alex Higgs have work livestock and arable holdings more than 100 miles apart and, while conditions on the Gower Peninsula are fairly kind, making a living from 162 hectares (400 acres) of mountainous land between Llanidloes and Rhayader, Mid Wales, is far from easy.
But an investment of more than £60,000 into a 5.5kW hydroelectricity generation plant has brought much-needed additional income to the steeply sloping Cwmfron Farm, Tylwch.
Alex, a partner in the C.J. Beynon and Partners family business, says the management of both holdings presents different challenges.
“The land at Gower’s Great Pitton Farm is much easier to farm, being a mixed 202ha (500 acres) coastal holding with sheep, cattle and a range of cereal crops,” he says.
“But in Mid Wales the principle is to buy in as little as possible, breed our own replacements and buy-in as little feed as possible by using grass as effectively as possible.
“But the topography means we cannot be as efficient as farms blessed with lower land and a kinder climate.
“The weather is challenging. Winters are longer and the year-round temperatures are lower. Cuts in hill support payments have not helped either.”
The couple have invested in high sugar grasses and clovers in whatever fields are suitable to produce better silage and grazing for finishing stock and care is taken to look after the permanent pastures which were put down in the 1980s. But this was not enough on its own.
“Another income earning avenue was considered essential to compensate for the fluctuating market returns and the uncertainty surrounding the future of support payments,” says Alex.
“Diversification ventures are pretty limited in this part of the world but finally we opted for hydro generation as we have a lot of rain and a natural stream with a sufficient fall. It seemed to be a ‘green’ way of improving the farm’s income. The investment has proved to be one of our better decisions.”
At the head of the stream there is a mesh screen to prevent foreign matter going down the 36 metres of continuously welded plastic piping, which is strong enough to withstand the pressure from the 20 tonnes of water in it.
Water flows down the pipe at a rate of 20 metres per second, going into a purpose-built powerhouse, through the turbine and then out again to rejoin the stream.
Jolyon says: “Getting approval from all the bodies controlling the environment was not simple. From start to finish, it took us three years.
“We had to deal with the likes of the Highways Agency, the footpath people, archaeologists, environmental organisations and even the fisheries department, all of which cost us about £5,000.”
Since the initial installation, the couple have added a computer which constantly monitors turbine performance, energy generation and water flow rate, automatically reducing throughput whenever needed or in an emergency.
“When we drew up the budget we allowed for three possible dry months during summer when output would be low or even non-existent, and in the main this has proved to be the case.
“But for nine months of the year the turbine runs continuously, unlike the downtime of windmills. There is little to go wrong,” he adds.
As well as supplying the National Grid, the turbine provides power for heating in the farmhouse via night-time storage radiators, providing an estimated household saving of about £1,000 a year.
Alex says: “Producing your own power does make you focus more on what electricity you are using and what you could be earning. It also fosters a much greener outlook.
“We think payback time will be in the region of 10 years and we have a guaranteed income for 20 years.
“Nothing has gone wrong yet and, other than regularly checking and cleaning the screens to prevent any water flow blockages from leaves and other vegetation, the maintenance requirements are proving to be next to nothing.
“It means we can carry on with the day-to-day jobs of livestock farming unhindered and it fits in well with my regular commuting to the Gower to help Father run Great Pitton. Our son Tom is based there too.”
The Gower flock is centred round Welsh ewes producing ewe lambs for breeding and finished lambs on the clifftop grazings, with tack lambs also taken in during winter months to graze on grass and turnips.
“In Mid Wales the basic flock is Welsh, with ewes going to Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce flock replacements and the resulting Welsh Mules put to Texel rams to produce our finished lambs.”
Mules are lambed indoors at the end of March, followed by the twin-bearing Welsh ewes, while those carrying singles lamb outdoors. All lambs are finished and sold deadweight through the local abattoir.
The cattle enterprise revolves round rearing dairy-cross beef calves alongside bought-in store cattle, all being finished off grass or on a shed-fed mixed ration.
Limousins are crossed with Aberdeen-Angus and finished calves go through a designated supermarket outlet. A few go to a Limousin bull to produce heifers for herd replacements.
Alex says: “In our thinking, cattle are extremely important to manage the grazing ground and produce muck for spreading – but no matter how efficient the system is, market returns remain low and well out of touch with inflation.”
Caring for the environment is a passionate part of the Higgs’ farming approach, which has resulted in several awards over the years.
Available grants have been used to put in fences and shelter belts, trees have been planted on marginal land, existing woodlands have been managed by coppicing and restricting access and small areas have been fenced off to benefit wildlife.
The aim has been to incorporate wildlife corridors with trees and shrubs of different maturity to provide shelter and food. This is managed by decreased stocking rates and grazing at specific times to encourage a more natural development.
“There is disappointment wildlife schemes are now so complicated and prescriptive,” says Alex.
“Little discussion is being held with farmers about the success or failure of past environmental schemes and no discussion whatsoever is taking place between the Welsh Government and the farmers responsible for maintaining the countryside about how projects have performed.
“It would be good if new schemes were as clear and simple as possible to apply for.
“We just cannot understand why trees have been taken out of BPS payment criteria. If BPS is not a production grant, why are areas of environmental benefit eligible?
“There will have to be a means of support for Welsh farmers in the future as, for many areas, farming is the major industry stimulating jobs in the rural economy.
“Farmers play an important role in their communities and it is important young people see a future in farming to avoid rural depopulation.
“Given the amount of streams, hills and rainfall in Wales, more farmers need to be encouraged to invest in hydro-generation plants. They are not visible and will last much longer than windmills and solar units.
“We used to hate the rain – but now we just love it.”