Organic conversion suits Welsh hill unit

Going organic and adding a poultry enterprise have helped a Welsh hill farm recover after losing 3000 in-lamb ewes and 500 cattle to foot-and-mouth disease in 2001.

The slaughter gave Haydn Jones and his son David the chance to rethink management policy on almost 584ha (1400 acres) of less favoured land at Llanbadarn Fynydd in Powys.

Visitors to an Organic Centre Wales-organised farm walk heard they opted not to continue trying to maximise cattle and sheep output on steep hill land located at over 300m (1000ft).

“We wanted a slightly easier life and reducing stock and switching to a low input organic system seemed to be the best option,” said Haydn Jones, who started farming Y Ddol farm in 1951.

At that time it extended to 62.5ha (150 acres) and the son of the local blacksmith set out to optimise production. This included being a pioneer breeder and user of Welsh Halfbreds out of Welsh Mountain ewes.

But visitors learned the cross had given way to Welsh Mules bred from the business’s small Welsh Mountain flock. “We now run a total of about 2500 ewes and the Mules are put to Charollais rams to produce 18.5-19kg finished lambs that go through the Waitrose organic lamb scheme.”

The original crossbred suckler cows were replaced by Angus and Angus crosses. Mr Jones said these were put to Angus bulls and the progeny were normally sold as stores to a finisher, who marketed branded organic Angus beef through a thriving farm shop and other outlets. But an outbreak of bovine TB meant all calves were finished at home.

Mr Jones said he had always been keen on using clover, an interest that fitted in with organic management. Efforts to manage the legume well had boosted silage quality, but a trial red clover ley sown in 2008 had not done well in its first season.

The first free-range poultry were introduced after foot-and-mouth, as a diversification that was independent of land, but could supply organic fertiliser. The stocking rate reduction after foot-and-mouth had already reduced grazing pressure and it was no longer necessary to away winter about 600 ewe lambs.

The Welsh Assembly’s Farming Connect initiative, which aimed to boost family farm incomes, helped finance the first 12,000-bird unit after a link up with an egg distributor. Open-day visitors heard that the Jones family partnership, which included David’s wife Lynda, now had 58,000 birds, of which 21,000 were run on an organic system.

Mr Jones told visitors the enterprise provided morning employment for five local people and weekend work for others. The birds came in at 16 weeks old and went out for manufacturing at 72 weeks. The organic eggs were sold to Sainsbury’s.

Heather McCalman, head of the Grassland Development Centre at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth, says organic conversion is a way for farmers to reduce their vulnerability to fossil fuel cost rises.

As the Jones family has demonstrated, it could also make farming systems more sustainable. But in the week the Organic Conversion Information Service insisted the credit crunch did not mean the end of organic farming, Dr McCalman warned that organic status had demanding legal foundations and did not always deliver premium prices.

“The message is to think about all factors before deciding to go organic,” Dr McCalman said. Would-be converters must ask themselves whether they have the ability to manage grass and clover better, and achieve the right balance between input costs, output volume and end price. Recently, organic premiums have declined as, after 10 years of growing demand, housewives have become more reluctant to spend on organic foods.

“Just remember organic concentrates can cost £400/t compared with £190/t for non-organic feed. At the least I urge you to take advantage of the day-and-a-half of free advice available in Wales through the Farming Connect Organic Development Programme,” said Dr McCalman.

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