Blaenbwch Discussion Group

The following report has been written by the farmers and forester who took part in the visits. All views and opinions included are their own.

Blaenbwch Discussion Group


2nd – 5th November 2017


The Blaenbwch Discussion Group meets every few months and aims to organise a trip every year. The group have been on two previous day trips which were very beneficial. The first trip was a visit to Geraint Powell in the Cotswold who manages 5,000 ewes and the other trip was to visit the Davies family, Penlanlwyd who rent the Pembrey ground from the Army running suckler Luing cows. Both trips were excellent knowledge transfer days

For 2017, group members wished to visit farms further afield to enhance their farming knowledge and to see how farmers outside of Wales are adapting to change.  They chose three renowned farming businesses who used to be traditional beef and sheep farms but have used new farming techniques and taken advice from others over the years, while also benchmarking their businesses to improve on areas of weakness. This has made their businesses stronger in the face of an uncertain agricultural future. They have also diversified into other areas of agriculture to improve efficiencies and minimise risk.

It is hoped that by visiting these farms, the group will gain confidence and motivation to scrutinise their own businesses and see if there’s anything they could be doing differently. They may also decide to implement some of what they’ve seen and learnt on their home farms.


Day 1 – Sir John Campbell, Glenrath Farms

Sir John Campbell is a first-generation farmer. He purchased Glenrath Farm in 1961 when he married a poultry farmer’s daughter.  He had to sell 70 acres of his best land in order for the farm to survive. Initially they began rearing pullets for resale and the business grew from there.

The business now employs 18 family members and 220 members of staff. Located in the Scottish borders, the farm covers 15,000 acres with 11,000 breeding ewes and 600 suckler hill cows. They sell 1.5 million eggs every day direct to supermarkets.  The business recently invested £6.5 million in an egg pasteurising and processing plant and are now one of Scotland's largest farms. They have also invested £60 million over the last ten years developing and modernising their farms to the standard expected by the UK's high street retailers.

Sir John Campbell took the group around several egg sites as well as visiting the stock farms.  One of the farms visited was originally a research centre where 'Dolly the Sheep' was cloned.  Little did we know the sight that would greet us a short distance away.  A total of ten 32 thousand chicken sheds were spread throughout the valley, all part of Glenrath farms.  It was a tremendous sight, one which will live long in the memory of those on the trip.

No one could fail to be inspired by Sir John Campbell's sheer drive and enthusiasm for his businesses and the wider agricultural industry.  Even at the age of 82, he is still involved in the day to day running of the entire business and in total charge of sales.

The group picked up a very good message from the trip, Sir John said that the most important part of the business is sales.  If you don't sell, no other part of the business works.

Day 2 – James Logan, Pirntaton Farm

On the second day the group visited Pirntaton Farm, a large upland livestock unit in the Scottish Borders.  It covered 640ha with 570ha effective area and rises from 230m - 520m. Historically, the farm ran 120 cows and approximately 1,400 ewes in a traditional system, selling both pedigree Aberdeen Angus and Blackface and Scotch Mules.

In 2013, they made the decision to make significant changes to the business with the objective of creating a farming system which was not reliant on the sale of high value pedigree stock and would be profitable and sustainable in the absence of subsidies. The strategy focussed on reducing the cost of production and cutting their 400 tonne cake order considerably whilst still increasing output by utilising grass.

Cattle genetics were also changed to a three-way cross of Aberdeen Angus, Hereford and Stabiliser aiming for a mature weight of 650-700kg. The mature weight for the pedigree cows used to be 900kg. The Blackface flock was replaced with Hill Cheviots crossed with Lleyn with the ewe lambs being kept for replacements for the lowland flock. The lowland flock was crossed with the NZ Romney, Abertex and Lleyn. Only the ewes carrying triplets were housed at night time during lambing and the rest lambed outside.

As well as altering the genetics, they set up a rotational grazing system and created 130 paddocks of approximately 3.5ha with stock carefully allocated, varying amounts and quality of pasture throughout the year. This had a significant impact on their bought in feed costs, with all the fencing and first year infrastructure costs of a gravity fed water system being paid for by the first year savings in feed costs alone.

All of these changes have allowed them to produce more stock off the same area of land. 

They have recently introduced deer into the system with a purchase of a 100 hinds.  The aim is to increase this number to 300 by 2019.  The fat deer will be sold at approximately 15 months to Dovecote Park for Waitrose at a price of £5.50 - £6.00 per kilo, aiming for a deadweight carcass of 65 -70 kg.

With the consumption of lamb falling by 2% in the UK and the demand for deer increasing by 20 - 25%, it looks a wise decision. However, there is a considerable capital outlay of £700 per hind to cover the cost of the hind, fencing and handling facilities.

Again, the Group were inspired by the decision taken by the Logan Family to totally change their farming system to ensure their business would be sustainable in the future.

Day 3 – Sion Williams, Bowhill Estate - Buccleuch Group

The third and final farm visited by the group was Bowhill Estate which is part of the Bucclech Group and covers 10,300 acres. They run 190 pedigree premium health Aberdeen Angus cows which are used for replacements for the remainder of the herd. The best bulls were kept for selling to pedigree and commercial farmers. All cows calve in a nine week period starting on the 1st of April.  A further 280 suckler cows are kept on the hill farm, predominantly Shorthorn crosses with a Charolais sire used for the bulk of the beef calves. 

Store calves are weaned early September and kept until approximately 14 - 18 months old.  In previous years they were sold on farm at 10 - 12 months old. Calves were sorted into different sized groups and buyers were invited to the farm where they submitted their tender for the groups they wished to purchase. The buyer with the highest bid bought each group of calves.  However, last year they went down with TB and they are now having to finish them on farm instead.  They hope to go back to the old way of selling as soon as they are clear of TB as there is very little profit in fattening the cattle.

The sheep enterprise consisted of a hill flock of 3,850 Scottish Blackface breeding ewes which were kept on 7,375 acres of heather moorland. General breeding practice was to produce replacements by breeding purebred Blackies or crossing to Innovis maternal sires which increased growth and size. The remainder of the lambs were used for fat lamb production and sold to Sainsbury's. The lowland flock consisted of 1,350 crossbreds such as Scotch Mule, Aberfield cross and Aberdale cross ewes (all maternal crosses to the Scottish Blackface). They were mainly kept for fat lamb production. They also produced pure Texel and Primera breeding stock for selling sires or for keeping as replacements.

They also ran a poultry enterprise with a 32,000-hen free range egg laying unit on the farm. This was a diversification project ran alongside the farming business as it did not rely on agricultural subsidies. The unit was erected in 2005 and has been a valuable asset to the business as it supplies chicken manure which is used in the Anaerobic Digester.

In terms of renewables, the farm had a 50kW Solar PV system which was installed to supply the poultry shed.  They also had a 200kW AD plant run mainly on farm produced manures which produced electricity to the grid which was over and above what they could use themselves. The manure from the AD plant is dried down and used as bedding or spread as fertilisers onto grassland and arable crops.

Sion told the Group that there was very little money in the cattle side of the business but that the subsidy did encourage him to keep the cattle as it would be reduced to nearly half without the cows. He had been encouraged to fence off parts of the hill to stop the cattle grazing it which had resulted in an economical boost to the farm. Doing this allowed him to gain access to a 40% grant to install a new cattle set up on the farm.

The Group were very impressed with the AD plant and its very simple system using three main ingredients - poultry manure, cow manure/slurry and silage. For a £1.4 million investment, it was reaping the rewards at £1,000 profit per day.

Next Steps

The group thoroughly enjoyed the trip which provided excellent knowledge transfer.  The group interacted well with the hosts and gained a lot of knowledge about the running of their businesses. A lot of the farmers want to take their businesses forward using the renewable and poultry options available but feel that they are being held back, particularly on the poultry side with planning issues such as SSSI areas close to proposed sites.

The same planning problems exist with the renewables and there is the added issue that there is no capacity within the existing rural power cables to transfer electricity back into the grid.  These issues limit farmers wanting to diversify and increase their farm income. Group members feel that the Welsh Government are encouraging farmers to future proof their businesses but that they are also holding farmers back with too many restrictions and regulations.

The trip was a great success as the host farmers openly discussed best practice, new ideas and the different methods undertaken which had allowed them to take their businesses forward.

The group is also a good way for farmers to communicate as farming can be a lonely job with less people working on the farms and the majority of stock sold direct to abattoirs rather than through the local market, which used to be a great talking shop for farmers.  The trip allowed farmers to have a break from their farms and to interact with likeminded farmers whilst still gaining new ideas to take back home.  The Group has a wide age range from 18 - 61 years old which allowed great knowledge to be passed on as well as seeing the benefits of using new technology going forward.

The group will continue to hold meetings to transfer knowledge in the future.