Welsh farm switch from beef to dairy to secure future

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Welsh farm switch from beef to dairy to secure future

After making the decision to switch to dairy, husband and wife team Stephen and Claire Jones tell Gaina Morgan about their transition, and why it presents them with a brighter future.

Family life and a want to pass on a thriving business is the driving force behind a West Wales couple's new dairy venture, and after taking the plunge, Stephen and Claire Jones have now sold the beef and sheep and are building up to a herd of 140 cows on their 174 acres, with milking due to start in February. Stephen and Claire first met in the village primary school at Llanddewi Brefi, between Aberystwyth and Lampeter, and married young.

They work well together, but beef and sheep farming meant they each had to work off farm, Claire as a qualified medical secretary with the local GP practice and Stephen spent many hours contracting. They wanted a more structured life with their children 8-year-old Alaw and 6 year-old Shôn, and a better work life balance.

Pant Farm, which rises to 821 feet above sea level, has been in Stephen's family for three generations and was a traditional beef and sheep farm, but his interest in dairying was by milking and looking after dairy cows with his maternal grandparents. The return from the Hereford cross beef herd and 350 Welsh ewes put to Texel and Suffolk rams did not justify the much-needed improvements at Pant Farm. So, the cattle were sold locally as stores and calves, with the finished lamb going to Dunbia for sale in Sainsbury's.

Stephen says: "We needed something to put our mark on the farm. I came home to farm full time when I was 16. It was a beef and sheep farm, mainly, but I've done some contracting. I wanted to spend more time at home when the kids came along and so we'd been talking about this [change] for four or five years. We wanted a better quality of work/life balance. It's a nice routine to have and you've got an income every month, instead of as with the beef and sheep it was all coming in at once at one time of the year. A lot of the time you had to balance things out."


Help from the Welsh Government's Farming Connect was particularly important in the beginning, as they researched the challenges and opportunities dairying would present. Lockdown gave them the opportunity to sit down and evaluate the business model as they were at home more and could devote the time to planning, plus they had to decide on the milking system, how many cows and what breed. And Stephen says they had to totally change the grazing system.

"We've gone to a paddock grazing system and the cows are moved every 24/48 hours. The grass is measured once a week with a plate meter," says Stephen.

"We can grow a lot more grass now with the paddock system than when the sheep were grazing it as one block. There has been a massive difference. The cows have been out since March and they're still out. We usually reseed 20 acres a year anyway and this year we've done about 30 acres, just to get the grass up ready for next year. Most of the farm has been reseeded in the last 15 years, so it's pretty good anyway."

They tried to secure a contract with three companies whose lorries were passing the door, but it was Dairy Partners in nearby Newcastle Emlyn who took them on. The company produces cheese for retail, food service and manufacturing.

Dairy Partners agreed a split block calving system, in the Spring and Autumn, although the couple had favoured Spring block calving. It does mean there is money coming in all the year around and less stress, with 70 calving in a tight block twice a year instead of 140. The farm has to be Red Tractor assured and, with particular emphasis on the butterfat, they have introduced Jersey cross and Danish Red cross heifers.

Claire says: "Neither of us have got massive experience with milking. I didn't have any, so we got a job at a local farm. They have been mentoring us through Farming Connect, so we did a year with them. It was a Spring block calving herd of 400 cows, and it made us even more keen. We knew that was what we wanted to do. They are British Friesians and we've decided to have the same. They also helped us a lot, giving advice on where to put the tracks and the water tanks."


They bought their first 50 heifers in September 2020, followed by some hand reared calves in the October. The first batch of 70 will calve in February 2022, with the second batch following in the Autumn. The investment has been considerable. The sheep and beef were sold to buy dairy stock, and they qualified for the Welsh Government Small Business Grant, which helped with the auto ID gate, the Collinson silo cake bin, grass plate meter and parts for the parlour. There was also an additional grant to help with a farmyard covering. The 16/32 Herringbone DeLaval parlour was chosen, together with an 11,000 litre tank - it is, they says, bigger than they need, with room for expansion, and complies with the need to be able to store milk from six milkings in the event of snow and ice. The plant was a good price and good quality, but more importantly the dealership is literally ten minutes away at Talsarn.

The personal touch is important, as well as chiming with their personal ethos to buy local wherever possible and their passion for the Welsh community and culture. Stephen and Claire did most of the concreting and other work, with the help of local builders where necessary. The slurry tower had to be updated and complies with future more stringent Welsh Government regulations, including the six months storage and NVZ.

Stephen says: "We contacted Farming Connect to start off with, to see what advice they had and what is available. We've done so much training with them over the years. They did the business plan for the grant with us, they helped with the soil sampling and provided more than 80 per cent funded training with regard to dairying. Someone came out to calculate how much slurry storage we needed and to try and give us a rough idea of what to do on the yard.

"I also designed a lot of it myself, with help from Lloyds Dairy Centre, the DeLaval agent, and our mentor, as well as the shed builder, Steel Fab Wales. I just needed to know in what direction to put the shed to get things to work."

It has been a year of sheer hard work, heavy investment and meeting deadlines. Much of their journey has been played out on Instagram, with Claire particularly keen to share an insight into the joys of farming and of producing wholesome local food, as well as the sheer hard work. Her light-hearted, joyful, touch and delight in their family and farming life means she is a natural with photos and now has 1987 followers keeping up their transition. She is also determined to champion the role of women in Welsh farming and to share the lifestyle and business opportunities it can bring - along, of course, with the sheer fun and exhilaration of it all.



Farm facts

  • Extends to 174 acres
  • Herd 140 milking cows by February 2022
  • Land rises to 821 feet above sea level
  • Rainfall 150mm per month, five months of year
  • Milk will be sold to Dairy Partners for cheese for retail and manufacturer
  • Paddock grazed and grass measured once a week