That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Alistair Sharp, 26 a Welsh native, in this week’s Farmer Focus segment. He discusses his family’s mixed 17-acre holding, diversifying into bell tents and bale production and his growing interest in Stabiliser cattle.
“I run my mixed enterprise, Highfields Farm, alongside my father, Barry. I am a second-generation farmer. My father originated from Birmingham with no farming background, attended Shuttleworth Agricultural College in Bedfordshire.
After completing his course, he then went on to contract shepherd across Somerset and Dorset. This is where I inherited my interest in the industry.
We acquired our holding of 17-acres back in 2004. After my GCSEs, I attended Gelli Aur College in Carmarthenshire and studied for an extended diploma level 3 in agriculture.
This led me to complete my foundation degree in agriculture, alongside working full-time. While studying for my ED, I milked 75 cows through a 20/10 herringbone every morning for a friend.
However, for the past 8.5 years, I have been fortunate enough to work on a neighbouring, high yielding, semi-intensive, dairy farm.
At home, we have a herd of 10 cattle, two in-calf Stabiliser heifers, two Hereford steers, which we will sell this spring as stores and 6 Belgian Blue-cross heifer calves, which I purchased from my employer. I aim to breed from them and create a suckler herd.
We have expanded the herd. Much to my father’s disapproval, I originally began with 3 Friesian bull calves. He soon came around and warmed to the idea.
We have reared a batch of calves every year to sell as stores at 21-24 months of age. These are primarily Belgian Blue and Hereford steers, which we then sell locally to a large finishing unit.
We are farming 17-acres at home with an additional 10-acres rented for forage, approximately 3 miles away.
New to us this year are the Stabiliser cattle. This breed has become more and more popular over the last few years. They are renowned for their excellent feed efficiency, hardiness, mothering abilities and calving ease.
Furthermore, some farmers label them the superior performing suckler cow. All these traits are favourable for a smallholder like me.
We need cows that will be easy to manage and handle and not give us any issues.
We will run these alongside our Belgian Blue-cross heifers. The Belgian blue is renowned for its outstanding conformation and double muscling.
Adding these traits to the milky, excellent temperament, characteristics of the black and white genes, these cross-breds will make good, shapey mothers that will produce sufficient milk for rearing suckler calves.
As far as reproduction is concerned, we will go down the route of CIDR synch as, unfortunately, we are not set up correctly to be handling a stock bull on-farm. This will work well for us as it’ll make us in control of when the calving window occurs.
The Stabilisers are due to calve at the beginning of April. April is a good month to calve. Cows and calves can be turned out to pasture sooner post-calving, and the weather is on our side, minimising any health issues. We will retain heifer calves for future breeding.
We do not have any other stock on the farm. Tack sheep graze the third-cut between October until they return home for lambing at the beginning of January.
This prevents the pasture from burning off from any frost over the winter months and is an additional source of income for us.
Over 700 bales
Another enterprise we are involved in is producing small bale hay and haylage.
Our market is aimed at, and most of our customers are heavily involved in the equine sector.
Last year, we produced over 500 small bale hay, around 200 small, round, triple wrapped haylage and about 50 round bale haylage, baled with a McHale Fusion.
This enterprise has worked well for us. We believe in quality over quantity and aim to produce the best, most palatable, forage possible.
The small round bales are baled using a Wolvo R500 baler and are triple wrapped.
These bales are convenient for those without machinery to deal with. They are manually handled and weigh approximately 35-40kg. We sell these for £6.50/bale.
As far as acreage is concerned, we usually close off 9 acres at home for predominantly grassland croppings.
We aim for three cuts and apply liquid slurry and a light covering of 20.10.10 or 21.8.11 fertiliser.
The ground is easily accessible from my employer’s slurry lagoon, so I am fortunate to umbilical spread slurry back on, ensuring the ground is re-fed with sufficient P and K.
We treat our rented 10-acres as ‘organic’ ground and we use it to produce small conventional hay, which we sell as ‘non-cert, organic, meadow hay’.
New to us this spring is our bell tent idea. With the strange times of the previous two years within the coronavirus pandemic, nobody has been able to travel as they would have where holidaying is concerned.
When restrictions allowed us to do so, many of us went on ‘staycations’, supporting local and using accommodation we would not usually have considered.
The Welsh government have allowed farmers to use agricultural land for non-agricultural activities such as pop-up campsites, without planning permission, for 56 days a year.
This has doubled from 28 days during the second year of the pandemic. This is an excellent added income for the smallholding.
With the way the agricultural industry is, sadly, at the moment, many of us feel the need to diversify to support our businesses. This could be more than £1,000/ month income for the farm, with very minimal effort.
The two bell tents will be set in approximately 3/4 of an acre paddock, equipped with toilet facilities.
We are fortunate enough to be very near to the Pembrokeshire coast with beaches such as Newgale and Broad Haven. Another landmark, St David’s, the UK’s smallest city, is only a stone’s throw away.
Unfortunately, I do not think it is financially possible to be fully dependent on my business for earning a living, but I enjoy what I do alongside working full-time.
My aim for the future is to continue the journey I am on, increase the number of stabilisers in the herd, and keep delivering a service of hay and haylage to the best of my ability. The most important part is to keep having fun and to keep farming.
Farming brings me joy: seeing new life born and stock grow into good quality animals. Spending my days in the countryside and surrounded by nature.
Every day, you are faced with a new challenge, a new hurdle to overcome, but we get up each day with the same enthusiasm and do it all again.
This industry is the best industry. The job satisfaction you get each day is indescribable.
Looking back on my journey so far, in agriculture, I am immensely proud. I started with nothing and have worked hard to get where I am today.
I am probably a very small fish in a very big pond to most readers. However, with what I have achieved with the minimal resources I have, I would like to think I may inspire some individuals not to give up and to keep progressing in their farming careers.
I am forever grateful for my father, my friends and my employers for all their help and encouragement throughout my journey so far,” the Welsh farmer concluded.
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