Paul and Dwynwen Williams took over Cae Haidd Farm in December 2013 after their uncle, Ifor Thomas, retired from the partnership they'd entered into in 1999.
Today, the couple farm 320 acres - 255 of that upland and the remaining lower down the Conwy Valley. In the last four years, they've expanded their beef and sheep enterprise and started to rear dairy calves. They now have 50 suckler cows, and a plan to increase the herd even further. They also have 600 Welsh Mountain and crossbred ewes and are bucket-rearing high-quality dairy-cross calves.
Behind the expansion has been a strong focus on investing in infrastructure, technology and data - an approach that helped them to win the 2017 Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year Award.
Weather eye on the business
Any wise investment has to be based on knowing what works and what brings a good return. To that end, Paul and Dwynwen are committed to analysing their performance and to comparing it with others. They've been part of the Farm Business Survey since 1999 and their results from the past two years put them in the top third of financial performance for suckler cow production.
"You can think you're doing a pretty good job, but unless you can quantify that and compare against others, you're really working in the dark," says Paul. "Because we know how our business stacks up, we can do more of what works well and concentrate on improving the not-so-good. We might be in the top third now, but we want to get as high as we can."
The couple run their own costing system in parallel with the mandatory records and, in any month, have a clear picture of where they are on costs and performance.
"We can see, for example, that our suckler cows are doing well for us, but we're contemplating moving out of sheep production," adds Paul. "We've changed breeds but we're still not happy with the output. We'll give it another year, but then there'll be an informed business decision about whether to reduce the flock."
You can think you're doing a pretty good job, but unless you can quantify that and compare against others, you're really working in the dark.
Investment saves £15,000 a year
Soon after taking over, the Williams family had the chance to buy more lowland, and took an HSBC mortgage to fund the project.
"We could see that it would give us a different dimension," explains Paul. "We now have more flexibility because we get two months' extra grass in spring and at the back end of the year. Longer term, it could be a development opportunity because it's right on the outskirts of Llandudno."
An HSBC loan, along with a grant and money from the business, also paid for new cattle housing with a slatted floor and automatic scrapers. The investment has reduced feeding and bedding time from three hours for 28 cows to 20 minutes for 50 cows.
"It's already saving us nearly £15,000 a year, so we can see payback in less than six years," says Paul.
In the early days of taking over the farm, the couple faced the challenge of money going out rather more quickly than it came in.
"There's nothing like a bit of debt to sharpen your pencil," laughs Paul. "When we took over, we put in a small wind turbine and seemed to be spending money like mad, but everything has now fallen into place. The turbine is in no way designed to subsidise the farm - that has to stand on its own feet. We installed it as our pension plan."
There's nothing like a bit of debt to sharpen your pencil.
Smart tools bring rewards
Paul and Dwynwen choose their technology carefully, ensuring it will optimise performance rather than complicating day-to-day tasks. Using heat detection collars, for example, they've been able to pull the year-round calving herd back to a January to March calving period, and they've tightened the calving index from 420 to 370. AI conception rates have risen to 74% of cows in calf after first service and 96% in calf after a second service.
Though the couple rarely need help with calving, they've used the Moocall monitor for the past three years, so they can be on hand if needed.
They keep tight control of costs thanks to their own spring water supply and the 15kW wind turbine, which powers the farm and produces excess for sale. The farmhouse is warmed by a ground-source pump and the same technology will heat the holiday lets they plan to create in some of the older farm buildings.
One diversification that's already bringing in income is a marquee hire business that's grown from one to nine marquees and a full order book.
“I'd been working for the NFU and was on a decent salary when my uncle needed to retire, so it was a big decision,” says Paul. “I'm the fifth generation of our family to farm here and we decided we wouldn't just take it on; we'd make a real success of it. The aim is to give our three children the opportunity to take over a multi-tier, dynamic business should any of them want to take over when we retire.”
The aim is to give our three children the opportunity to take over a multi-tier, dynamic business should any of them want to take over when we retire.