What started off as a business selling lambs to teachers, has developed into a successful direct sales business for Robert David and further expansion is on the cards.
At the age of five, Robert David knew he wanted to be a farmer. When he was 11 he dipped into his pocket money savings to buy 15 ewes and at 16, while still at school, was selling lamb joints to his teachers.
Now, at 21, he has established an entrepreneurial network of sales outlets ranging from a chain of local supermarkets to highly rated restaurants and hotels.
Between them they take all of the output from what is now a 350-ewe flock and the prospects for further expansion are good.
Farming is not the only career avenue, either. After graduating from Cirencester’s Royal Agricultural University with a degree in rural land management, Robert has been working since August as a land agent with Abergavenny-based chartered surveyors, Williams Associates.
Robert says: “That involves anything to do with property, but ultimately I would love to move into auctioneering.”
His interest in keeping sheep was kindled as a youngster captivated by the ewes on the family’s Torgelly Farm, Llanharry, Pontyclun, in Rhondda-Cynon-Taf’s southern end of the Welsh Valleys.
Stock numbers on what then was a 121-hectare (300 acres) owned and rented holding were gradually being run down as his grandfather, Rhys, started to take things easier and his father, Andrew, began concentrating on his work as a plumber.
“Though we did not experience the trauma of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak at first hand, the after effects on the industry brought about the changes in the day-to-day running of the farm,” says Robert.
“The family took the decision that the farm was not going to be financially viable for two families so the acreage being farmed was reduced to 76ha (188 acres), which included the 24ha (60 acres) of owned ground.
Robert explains: “Before foot-and-mouth the farm had been running up to 600 ewes and 60 Limousin cross Charolais suckler cows going to Limousin bulls.
“A third of the ewes were draft South Wales Mountains bought from farms in the Valleys, put to a Bluefaced Leicester ram and terminal Texel and Suffolk tups going on to the resulting Welsh Mules.”
All the lambs were being finished and sold through the local markets, Cowbridge being the main one, along with Newport.
“There had been members of the David family farming the holding since 1887 and I was reluctant to see that coming to an end,” says Robert.
“By 2008 there were very few ewes left on the farm with the system largely revolving around 200 bought-in store lambs and finishing them as yearlings on a low maintenance diet.
“It was in 2009 that I bought my first sheep – a mixed bag of 15 full-mouthed ewes largely coming from neighbouring farms. Everything that has happened since has developed from them.
“They included five North Country Cheviots and the rest were mainly Texel crosses. I paid £60 apiece for them.
“Having arrived in the autumn I was in need of a ram so I bought a pedigree Texel for £150.
"He might well have been cheap but he turned out to be the best tup I have ever had. I used him for five years, so that really was a good investment.
“When I was 14 Dad bought a further 30 ewes and I bought some as well, taking us up to around the 75 mark.
“We had the lambs killed at an abattoir in Caerphilly and processed by a butcher friend of the family.”
At the age of 16 Robert had the idea of selling lamb to his school teachers.
He says: “That proved so successful that rather than selling finished lambs through the markets I set about looking around for other farm to plate outlets.
“The school caretaker had a friend who had just opened a pub with a meal menu, so I approached them and four years later I am still supplying them.”
That opening led to other possible outlets and Robert is now supplying the lamb needs of a local supermarket chain with eight outlets across south Wales.
“They pick up their carcases direct from the abattoir, while we deliver to our highly rated restaurants and hotel customers.
“It means that all our lambs are sold off-farm with prices based on a fixed rate per lamb all the year round. Financially it is a much better way of marketing our lambs.
“During the winter months the supermarkets will take up to 15 lambs a week whereas the other outlets will have around eight lambs a week, depending on how their Sunday lunchtime trade has been they will text us with the following week’s requirements.”
All the lambs are now Texel crosses with on the hook weights of 20kg to 24kg being the aim and Robert explains he has made slight changes in breed types to meet our specifications.
He says: “We keep a close eye on lamb conformation with most grading as E or U and while fat is not always welcome we find that some chefs are keen to have a little cover.
“After all they can trim the carcases to their liking but we rarely get complaints.”
In order to be able to supply lambs all year round lambing is spread, and starts in January to meet the culinary demand for the Easter trade. Store lambs are also bought in to meet New Year demand.
But with ewe numbers now standing at 350, including 40 ewe lambs, Robert is hopeful that next year there will be no need to purchase stores. That, of course, is based on current throughput.
Lambs are finished off grass and turnips during the winter and in order to prevent a large number of lambs reaching maturity at the same time no creep is fed. It also keeps costs down.
“The only feed we use are nuts and sugar beet pellets for the ewes carrying twins or triplets six weeks before lambing,” says Robert.
“Lambing in the main has been outdoors but we will be putting up a poly-tunnel this winter just to make things a little easier.
Trading as Torgelly Farm Produce, Robert is direct selling about 600 lambs a year between the hotels and the supermarkets.
He says it is an arrangement that works well for him and in time, it is a marketing method he would like to extend to cattle, having bought three British Blue-Limousin suckler cows and their Limousin calves last spring.
He says: “Hopefully they will finish well and find a home with my existing range of outlets. Only time will tell with that.”
He says he has been fortunate that his family have given him the freedom to farm in his own way, but says regrettably that is not always the case.
“Indeed I strongly believe that unless more youngsters are given their head and allowed to prove their worth, within 20 years there could well be very few family farms left.”