THE UNCERTAINTY created by Brexit and a desire to see the family farm succeed for years to come led one Welshpool farming family to make a feathery change.
Farmers’ Union of Wales members Mark and Helen Williams, who farm 40 suckler cows and 900 ewes at Pen Y Derw, near Welshpool, decided to diversify into egg production and have been up-and-running since June this year.
The poultry unit, which is home to 16,000 free range hens, provides the family with an additional income, as well as offering extra part time employment in the area.
“We have looked at poultry farming for the last ten years and the uncertainty created by Brexit, bearing in mind that most of our income has been provided by lamb trade and farm support payments, gave us the push we needed to make the decision and get the ball rolling,” said Mark Williams.
The planning process started in early 2015 and after lots of drawings, surveys and modelling, planning was granted in November 2015.
“Egg production is mainly a domestic market, so that takes the fear of having to export away. Originally we thought we would be going into broiler chickens but when researching the market a contract was difficult to find. The final thing that made us decide were our 3 boys. We are expanding the business to accommodate them if they wish to take over the farm in the future,” added Mark.
The eggs produced at Pen Y Derw are sold to L J Fairburns & Son, who collect them to be processed (graded) and packed, and they are then sent to distribution centres and onto supermarket shelves.
The chickens produce between 14,500 – 15,500 eggs every day, and Helen is in the chicken shed by 6.30am to check the birds, before heading back to house by 7.30 to make the boys their breakfast and do the school run.
Then its back to the chicken shed to start packing eggs by 9am, which takes about three hours.
By around 5pm Helen makes her way back to shed to do the final walk around and check the hens are ok.
Talking about her new routine she said: “I have to fit things in around the boys where possible and the mornings are now taken up with the hens.
“Before I had time to do other jobs, such as housework, banking, paperwork etc. so the pace here has definitely changed. Looking after the chickens is not so heavy and physical as looking after the sheep and cattle and it’s work in a dry and warmish environment.”
Walking around the chicken shed, Mark explains the production process: “The hens lay their eggs in nest boxes. Then the eggs roll onto the egg belts, which take them onto a cross conveyor and into the packing room.
“Here they are graded by hand, go through the machine to be stamped and put in trays. Then they go along a belt into a tray stacker, which stacks trays in sixes. Once we have a run of six stacks we put them on a pallet, which is a total of 720 dozen eggs. This is then wrapped and labeled and left in the cool room for collection,” he said.
Even though the couple have now got used to their new routine, it has not all been plain sailing from the start. Helen explains: “The birds arrived in a really hot week in June and they weren’t eating or drinking enough to start, although they were still gaining weight.
“That was a bit of a worry for us but thanks to the support from Lloyds animal feed we managed to get everything sorted. We also had a few very minor teething problems with the equipment but now everything is running well. With all the eggs our hens are producing we look forward to lots of cake here at home and a reduced fertiliser bill.”
But do the couple think they have made the right decision 4 months into their new way of life?
“We are still learning and it has changed our life quite a bit, maybe ask us again in 12 months time,” laughs Helen.
Having visited the farm and seen the new chicken shed in action recently, FUW County Executive Officer Emyr Davies said: “Mark and Helen are a credit to our industry. Their enthusiasm and dedication to give their farming business a chance of survival in light of the uncertainty created by Brexit is really an inspiration.
“Of course, this sort of diversification doesn’t suit everyone and there are often stumbling blocks with regards to planning that hold many farm businesses back. I would urge those in charge of granting planning permission to think again and not be the block that holds those farms back who want to future proof their business.”
More slaughter as TB strategy fails
THE LATEST data relating to bovine TB in Wales has revealed an alarming and unsustainable rise in the number of cattle slaughtered due to this disease.
According to recent data, the number of cattle slaughtered in Wales in the 12 months to October 2019 was 12,742 and this is the highest number on record.
Indeed, whilst the most recent data reveals a 12% fall in New Herd Incidents in the 12 months to October 2019, the number of cattle slaughtered over the same period was 24% higher than the previous year.
FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “Although the data from TB Dashboard shows improvement in some areas, the number of cattle slaughtered remains unsustainably high. Just 917 cattle were culled in 1996 due to this disease and it is a sad and disturbing fact that the Welsh cattle sector has now become somewhat used to cattle slaughterings reaching the many thousands each year.”
The Union President added that losing TB-free status is devastating to farming families and their businesses. “The loss of precious stock and the restrictions on a farm business can be incredibly destructive and it is extremely distressing for our members who have worked hard to gain TB-free status, only to lose it again in the subsequent years.
“A TB breakdown is not only financially crippling for the farm, but also impacts more widely as struggling farm businesses are less able to contribute to both the local economy and further afield.”
High sensitivity testing, such as gamma testing and the removal of inconclusive reactors at severe interpretation, is blamed for some of this rise. However, this will be of little comfort to FUW members, many of whom have seen a huge number of cattle removed from their farm, he added.
“Despite a wealth of evidence on the important contribution of wildlife control to TB eradication in some places, the current TB programme continues to focus almost entirely on cattle controls.
“The FUW has continued to reiterate members concerns regarding the implementation of measures such as high sensitivity testing, without significant measures to tackle the disease in wildlife.
“The number of cattle herds registered in Wales has declined by 43 per cent since 1996. Bovine TB is one of the most serious issues facing Welsh cattle farmers and a more holistic approach, which seriously tackles the wildlife reservoir, is required urgently,” said Glyn Roberts.
Andrew RT Davies AM/AC – Shadow Minister for Environment, Sustainability, and the Environment – said: “Each month, farmers and others in our rural communities anticipate these figures with apprehension, and with good reason.
“The stats for the year to October 2019 show that 12,742 animals were slaughtered because of bovine TB, which – up from 10,303 – is a rise of 24 percent on the same period in 2018. England, by contrast, saw a drop of two percent.
“Clearly, the Welsh Labour Minister for the Environment and Rural Affairs has not got to grips with her brief in the almost four years in her post, and farmers – and the rural economy – here in Wales suffer as a result.
“But the suffering is not only financial.
“In the Senedd last week my colleague Paul Davies AM/AC spoke passionately on the subject of farmers enduring mental health problems. Bovine TB is another pressure, another cause of stress that our hardworking farmers and their families suffer, and it’s time it ended.
“A Welsh Conservative Government would develop a new, holistic approach for the eradication of bovine TB and look at all options to achieve this.
“Until then, we will harry this Welsh Labour administration to listen to farmers – as well as the Farmers’ Union of Wales and NFU Cymru – to step up its efforts to control this disease and bring this crisis to an end.”
McDonald’s backs Countryside Fund
McDonald’S: Fast-food giant backing Prince Charles’ charity
McDONALD’s UK has entered into a three-year partnership with The Prince’s Countryside Fund, supporting the charity’s work in improving the economic resilience of farming families.
The Prince’s Countryside Fund, set up by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2010, works with farming and rural communities throughout the UK, and to date has provided over £10 million in grant and initiative funding.
Since 2016, the Fund’s flagship scheme, The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, has supported over 900 farming families to improve their business skills with free training and professional advice, in 60 locations across the British Isles. The programme has a track record of success, with evidence of significant behavioural change occurring – 91% of participating families improve their communication, and 89% have a better understanding of costs as a result of taking part.
McDonald’s works with over 23,000 British and Irish farmers, the partnership with the Prince’s Countryside Fund cements the business’ commitment to their futures, as well as the future of the farming industry.
Thanks to the support of McDonald’s, the Fund is launching the ‘Beef it Up’ scheme in 2020, a series of group workshops aimed at livestock farms in the Farm Resilience Programme alumni network. In order to further strengthen these farm businesses, the workshops will address topics including:
Animal health and welfare
The ‘Beef it Up’ workshops will help farms to continuously improve their practices and sustainability performance, by introducing them to practical steps they can take to immediately make changes to their production systems.
McDonald’s already has a proven track record in sharing knowledge through Farm Forward – an agriculture programme with three aims; to develop skills and knowledge in the industry, raise animal welfare standards and encourage environmental improvements to help create a sustainable future for British and Irish farming.
The partnership marks the latest step in McDonald’s sustainability journey and together with The Prince’s Countryside Fund and the business’ suppliers, the partnership will create fresh new solutions to the big challenges the industry is facing, promoting innovation that aims to futureproof the sector.
Claire Saunders, Director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund said: “I am thrilled that the Fund will be working again with McDonald’s, in order to help us improve the prospects of family farm businesses across the UK at such a critical time.”
Nina Prichard, Head of Sustainable and Ethical Sourcing at McDonald’s UK & Ireland said: “Our supply chain is absolutely critical to our success – we couldn’t serve the food that we’re famous for without the support and hard work of 23,000 British and Irish farmers. This partnership is an important move in supporting them and securing their future – farming is part of the fabric of our society, and we are delighted to be working with The Prince’s Countryside Fund on this resilience programme.”
Ocean currents affect crop yields
CROP production in Britain will fall dramatically if climate change causes the collapse of a vital pattern of ocean currents, new research suggests.
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) brings heat from the tropics, making Britain warmer and wetter than it would otherwise be.
University of Exeter scientists show that, while warming Britain is expected to boost food production, if the AMOC collapses it would not just wipe out these gains but cause the “widespread cessation of arable (crop-growing) farming” across Britain.
Such a collapse – a climate change “tipping point” – would leave Britain cooler, drier and unsuitable for many crops, the study says.
The main problem would be reduced rainfall and, though irrigation could be used, the amount of water and the costs “appear to be prohibitive”.
“If the AMOC collapsed, we would expect to see much more dramatic change than is currently expected due to climate change,” said Dr Paul Ritchie, of the University of Exeter.
“Such a collapse would reverse the effects of warming in Britain, creating an average temperature drop of 3.4°C and leading to a substantial reduction in rainfall (−123mm during the growing season).
“These changes, especially the drying, could make most land unsuitable for arable farming.”
The study examines a “fast and early” collapse of the AMOC, which is considered “low-probability” at present – though the AMOC has weakened by an estimated 15% over the last 50 years.
Professor Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, said worst-case scenarios must be considered when calculating risks.
“Any risk assessment needs to get a handle on the large impacts if such a tipping point is reached, even if it is a low-probability event” he said.
“The point of this detailed study was to discover how stark the impacts of AMOC collapse could be.”
The study follows a recent paper by Lenton and colleagues warning of a possible “cascade” of inter-related tipping points.
The new study reinforces the message that “we would be wise to act now to minimise the risk of passing climate tipping points” said Lenton.
Growing crops is generally more profitable than using land as pasture for livestock rearing, but much of northern and western Britain is unsuitable for arable farming.
“With the land area suitable for arable farming expected to drop from 32% to 7% under AMOC collapse, we could see a major reduction in the value of agricultural output,” said Professor Ian Bateman, of Exeter’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute.
“In this scenario, we estimate a decrease of £346 million per year – a reduction of over 10% in the net value of British farming.”
Speaking about the expectation that moderate warming would boost agricultural production in Britain, he added: “It’s important to note that the wider effects for the UK and beyond will be very negative as import costs rise steeply and the costs of most goods climb.”
The study focusses on agriculture, but AMOC collapse and the resulting temperature drop could lead to a host of other economic costs for the UK.
The AMOC is one reason that average temperatures in Britain are warmer than those of many places at similar latitudes. For example, Moscow and the southern extremes of Alaska are further south than Edinburgh.
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