Aled Jones is grateful that, so far, this winter hasn’t been as bad as last year, despite nearly 8in of snow falling before Christmas and temperatures dropping to -16C.
“I think we’ve got away with the weather so far and it hasn’t caused too many problems,” he says. “With the depth of snow we had, sheep were able to scratch around and get to the grass without too much trouble. Now the snow’s gone the grass has greened up nicely and the sheep look in decent condition.”
But grazing has had to be supplemented with extra feed blocks and silage, which has bumped up costs.
Mr Jones says about five tonnes of Rumenco blocks have been used so far, compared with nearer two tonnes in an average year. About 30 bales of silage have also been used, out of the 163 made as an “insurance policy” off an old pasture field after the harsh 2009/10 winter.
Overall, he expects supplementary feed costs will be about £2 a head higher than last year at £8.50-£10 per ewe. “It’s not because we’ve fed any more than last year – we’ve actually fed much less – it’s simply because feed is more expensive. For example, I’ve just ordered another 15 tonnes of cake at £210/t, which is up about £30/t on last year.”
Heating oil for the house has also jumped significantly, he notes. “We tried to get in early by ordering our oil in November, but the snow came just before it was delivered it and it was three weeks before it came. In that time, the price went up 7p/litre and we ended up paying 56p/litre.”
The prompt receipt of this year’s single payment from the Welsh Assembly has eased pressure on cashflow and the firm market prices have also offset cost hikes. Mr Jones estimates fat lambs will average about £63 a head for the 2010 crop and he hopes trade remains firm for this season. “It’s a good price, but everything else is going up too.”
Overall, he believes the business will be in a similar financial position to 2009 when the final profit share is made with owner Rupert Greenwell in March. “We’ll finish the 2010 season this March because that’s when the last Tir Mynydd payment comes through. Prices have been better this year, but we’ve had fewer lambs to sell, costs have risen and more of the single payment has been held back through modulation, so profit will basically stay the same I think.”
Looking forward, Mr Jones is fairly cautious. “Markets still look strong, but we can’t guarantee we’ll get £60 a head this year. If prices drop to £50 and costs stay the same, it’ll be a difficult situation. Hopefully that won’t happen but, if it does, our low cost base should put us in a better position than many.”
The only forward pricing Mr Jones has committed to is the annual contract with breeding company Innovis. About 400 of Tregeiriog’s Beulah ewes are put to four Aberdale rams, leased from Innovis at varying prices, depending on the ram’s age. Two four-year-old rams are leased at £100 each, one two-year-old ram is leased at £200 and one yearling ram costs £250 to lease.
Ewe lambs are then sold to Innovis, with a requirement that at least 40 ewe lambs per ram must be produced to qualify for the contract premium over the average slaughter price (SQQ) in the three weeks before the sale. This year’s premium has been increased and works out as the average SQQ + £8/head for 42-46kg lambs; SQQ + £6/head for 38-41.5kg lambs; and SQQ + £4/head for lambs weighing less than 37.5kg. There is also a minimum price of £1.20/kg.
“Last year we got everything in the 38-41.5kg bracket, so we’ll aim for that again this year, which should give us a premium of £6 a head over the average slaughter price.”
Rams went in with the flock in Nov-ember last year and everything will be scanned at the end of January or early February, depending on the weather. Mr Jones splits the sheep flock into four main groups, plus a small gang of crossbreds, and scans over two half-days, as it is easier to manage than trying to do it all in one go.
“Scanning is 99.9% accurate and has always been really useful for us,” he says. It allows supplementary feed to be targeted to those ewes he knows are carrying twins and means barren ewes can be picked out and sold.
“With prices of £50 a head, even these surplus ewes are doing a good trade at the moment.”
Any ewes carrying triplets or in poor condition can also be identified and housed before lambing – which is likely to start at the beginning of April, a week later than last year. “Generally, everything will be lambed outside, although it’s useful to have the sheds to act as a hostel for problem ewes or in case the weather turns bad,” he says.
Four to six weeks before lambing the entire flock will be vaccinated against pasteurella and clostridial infection with Heptavac-P.
While disease incidence on the farm is generally low, Mr Jones is puzzled by a recent outbreak of CODD (contagious ovine digital dermatitis) in a group of 40 ewes. “We had CODD here many years ago, but managed to eradicate it. It was in the days when I could use Micotil myself, which made it easier to get on top of the problem early on. Our vet at the time carried out a foot trial here, so we know it had gone completely.
“I can’t see where this new outbreak has come from; we’ve bought nothing in apart from a few rams and I can’t see them carrying it.”
The group has been treated with Alamycin, but the problem persists, he says. “There’s no point using a footbath because of the wet weather and muddy conditions, so we’ll have to bring the ewes in and get them injected with Micotil by the vet.”
Money well spent
The farm’s new John Deere 6230 has proved its worth already this winter, says Mr Jones. The 100hp machine, which is fitted with a front-end loader, was bought on a four-year finance deal last year to replace an ageing Lamborghini.
“The old Lamborghini did its best, but getting around in the snow has been so much easier this winter. It’s much better to use the tractor than the quad bike because of where we are; the steep hills put a strain on the bike when it’s got a trailer load of feed and I found I was doing several trips with half loads.
“Last year’s difficulties have made sure we were a lot more on the ball with the weather this year,” he adds.
FARM FACTS: Tregeiriog Farm, Llangollen, Clwyd
Tregeiriog Farm is a 376ha (930-acre) hill unit owned by Rupert Greenwell and farmed under contract by 38-year-old Aled Jones. Aled, who trained at Llysfasi College in Clwyd and the Welsh Agricultural College in Aberystwyth, receives a salary plus a 50% share of any profit.
The land rises to almost 500m (1500ft) above sea level and soils range from light loam to peat on the highest ground. It is managed on a low-input New Zealand-style system.
The farm carries 1275 breeding ewes and 300 ewe lambs, with cattle from neighbouring farms used to manage grass at peak times Bluefaced Leicester, Inverdale Texel and Lleyn tups are used in a cross-breeding programme.
Little hay or silage is made. He aims to sell all lambs by October and the breeding flock is wintered on deferred grazing. Hay is bought to feed in very bad weather.