28 May 1999

Not better to be bigger

Big is not always beautiful,

according to the owners of our

new adopted farm in north

Wales. Robert Davies reports

CEIRIOG Jones is part way through changing the way he runs his business.

It was, he admits, a bit of a Road to Damascus conversion.

Mr Jones examined his farm accounts a year ago and saw the light. He was physically and mentally exhausted from trying to expand the business using parcels of rented land as far away as Cheshire, and was losing money.

When he saw his 1997/98 figures and the trading loss of £30,000 his ambition was severely dented. He decided to slash costs and optimise the production of high-quality stock from a smaller area of land.

"Like many farmers, I had fallen into the trap of believing that the business had to get bigger to survive," says Mr Jones. "But I needed £25,000 a year just to pay for a worker and rented grazing. I was chasing my tail but pride would not let me admit it."

He admits that stepping off the treadmill hurt that pride. But he is sure he can make a reasonable living by cutting costs and concentrating on farming Cilgoed, near Corwen in Denbighshire, along with a small area of rented land.

The transition is not proving to be easy. His full-time worker has gone but stock numbers remain high to use unexpired grass lets. The aim is to reduce ewe numbers from 760 to 500 and to cull 13 of the 63 sucklers.

He has also applied to join Tir Gofal, the new Welsh whole farm agri-environment scheme. If the unit is accepted it will provide an income of £3000 a year for 10 years.

This spring he and his wife, Mair, lambed 740 ewes. These dropped 1200 lambs of which 1080 are alive. Cold wet weather and coccidiosis have slowed growth rates. In a normal season the first lambs finish at the end of July. In 1998 these realised £32 a head, or £2 a head more than others carried until October, and sold at heavier weights.

For the first time 490 lambs, including Mule ram lambs, were held until the turn of the year on a deadweight contract with an abattoir supplying Marks and Spencer. This paid well and showed that Mule lambs routinely discounted by auction buyers for poor conformation can grade U and R.

Mr Jones hopes to sign a similar contract this season. Terminal sires are not used and, though he is a great supporter of livestock markets, he is beginning to question whether he can improve the average price of his pure Beulah and Mule ram lambs by letting them be valued on the hook.

Many years of YFC stock-judging competitions have given him a pretty good eye for selecting lambs with the optimum level of finish for the breed. It is no surprise he gets annoyed when his lambs are downgraded at markets for no apparent reason.

The original name of the farm was Garw Fynnydd, or rough mountain. It is apt, with the land running up to the 374m (1230ft) contour. Trees do not grow on half the land. Only 24ha (59 acres) can be mown and 12ha (30 acres) are a no-go area for vehicles.

With good management the Beulah breed does well on the unit and provides a valuable extra product, Welsh Mule ewes. But last autumn the Jones Mule yearlings averaged £62 a head compared with £92 the year before and Mr Jones is worried that the slide will continue.

The sucklers started calving on April 2 and things went well until May 20 when the vet had to be called to a rather wild heifer with an apparently breeched calf. In fact the calf had a badly deformed spine and lived for only a few minutes.

"We try to call out the vet as little as possible but we could not afford to lose what might have been a valuable bull calf."

As the couple struggle to put their livestock business back onto an even keel they have been shocked and dismayed by the appointment of a vegetarian as Agriculture Secretary to the Welsh Assembly.

"I do not see how someone who is opposed to meat eating can possibly begin to understand our problems, or have sympathy with us," says Mrs Jones.

There is also deep concern about revision of HLCA payments. Having decided to farm a smaller area fairly intensively the partners will lose out badly if payments are based on area rather than stock numbers with no historical reference.

"We will have to wait and see what comes out of the consultation. But if the worst happens a unit like ours will no longer be viable, with devastating consequences for rural communities and the environment," says Mr Jones.

Like many other flockmasters he is worried about the low price of wool. For the second year running the cost of shearing will exceed the value of the clip. &#42

FARMFACTS

&#8226 An 81ha (200-acre) farm in north Wales owned and run by Ceiriog Jones and his wife, Mair, who are also tenants on a further 18ha (44 acres). There is 10ha (25 acres) on an 11-month let.

&#8226 Most land is steep, classified as severely disadvantaged. It carries 760 Builth Wells-type Beulah ewes, 330 ewe lambs and 63 spring and summer calving suckler cows.

&#8226 Older ewes not breeding replacements are put to Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce Welsh Mules for sale as ewe lambs or yearlings. Bull calves, once finished on farm, now planned to be sold on green CIDs.

&#8226 Mr Jones was a Welsh Sheep Strategy scholarship winner in 1998. The farm is one of three in Wales selected for an MLC co-ordinated technology transfer project.