Farming Connect Study Visit - Harlech 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.

Scotland and Cumbria

Harlech Discussion Group

9th - 11th February 2018 


The group has been meeting regularly to discuss different aspects of their businesses as well as looking for possible ideas and changes that could help improve the viability of their businesses. Considering the current difficult economic climate and the proposed changes to Government payments, it is vital that agricultural businesses look at every option. Following Sion Williams’ recent visit to North Wales, many members expressed interest in visiting Bowhill to see the developments that have and will take place there.  As the suckler herd is experiencing difficulties and the members’ interest in different breeds, the group decided to stop by the Luing Cattle Society sale in Castle Douglas during the journey up to Bowhilll on Friday. With members of the agricultural community diminishing and the difficulty getting individuals to ‘gather and sort flocks’ (especially on the mountains), a visit was arranged to the shepherdess, author and entrepreneur Katy Cropper in the Cumbria Uplands.


Day 1

The majority of the day was spent travelling to Scotland. As the majority of suckler herds in Wales are not making profit, some members of the group are considering changing the breed of their herds and were therefore eager to attend a pedigree cattle sale.  The sale was held by the Luing Cattle Society in Castle Douglas. The group spent time there and although no purchases were made this time, many members intend to visit Luing herds in North Wales and get more information regarding the cow’s ability to rear and survive in the Welsh uplands.  


Day 2

On the second day the group visited Sion Williams, the farm manager at Bowhill Estate, located near Selkirk in the South of Scotland. We had a very interesting and educational day in Sion’s company. To start, the group had a comprehensive and detailed presentation in the estate office explaining the structure of the businesses and the strategy used to ensure that the estate is sustainable for the future. Chiefs and managers meet regularly and any proposed changes within the organisation must be justified with figures. Part of Sion’s job as the agricultural manager is to present information on each enterprise separately and the group leant that having a benchmarking plan is all important to ensuring the viability of each different enterprise within the company. It became apparent from the start that Sion was a strategic and observant worker, with detailed information on each aspect of the farm business. Following the presentation, we had a tour of some of the sites led by Sion.

The company’s estates cover over 220,000 acres in total. At Bowhill they grow 155 acres of spring barley, 25 acres of spring oats and 115 acres of kale for finishing lambs and feeding the suckler cows. A mixer wagon is used for feeding and a detailed record is kept with the cost of each enterprises combined to calculate the final cost. A detailed record is also kept of all produce brought in and grown on the farm before being allocated to the relevant enterprise.

The Suckler Herd

The suckler herd enterprise consisted of 500 cattle, 200 of them pure Aberdeen Angus cattle with a premium health status. They also produce pedigree Aberdeen Angus breeding stock to sell to pedigree and commercial farmers. All cows calve in the spring during a nine-week period starting on the 13th of March. They keep around 100 commercial cows with a premium health status as replacements for the herd and for producing beef calves. The Aberdeen Angus cows are crossed with the Shorthorn breed. An additional 200 cows are kept on the farm, mainly Shorthorn X which are crossed with a Charolais bull. These cows are currently in their first year of premium health status. There is no flexibility or consideration in terms of any defects in these cows as they’re sold barren.

They also keep store cattle and calves are weaned and put on hay before being sold. Approximately 370 calves will go through this system with around 90 heifers being kept, 70 being sold as premium health status heifers at 12-18 months old and the rest being sold during the turnout period.  Health and safety is given close and constant attention at the farm and the company recently spent £20,000 on cattle handling pens. There are no grants available for this type of work in Scotland.

The Flock

The farm currently run 3,600 Scottish Blackface breeding ewes which are kept on 5,090 acres of heathland as well as 1,600 ewe crosses, including Cheviot, kept at Bowhill. Pure Blackface or crosses are produced. The crosses generate a high scanning rate, with the Aberdale scanning 270% and the Aberfield scanning 195%. They aim to finish the lambs young, finishing a percentage of them on kale following an experiment which found that lambs finished faster on kale than concentrate feed.

The Poltry Enterprise

32,000 laying hens are kept at Bowhill for producing free range eggs. This was a diversification project as it doesn’t depend on agricultural subsidies. The unit was erected in 2005 and has been a valuable asset to the business as it produces chicken manure for the grassland and arable farm enterprises. This helps reduce costs as well as being environmentally friendly as they use less inorganic manure. The enterprise made a loss in its first year due to high cereal costs and the low price received for the eggs. Today the enterprise produces £10,000 profit per year. This is due to various factors including the price of cereals dropping and that Bowhill won a contact with a company that pay a good price for the eggs.

The Anaerobic Digester

An enormous anaerobic digester was located on one of the farms and the groups had a chance to see the entire process. The company invested £1,4000,000 in setting up the anaerobic digestor but it generates an annual profit of £250,000.

The Deer Enterprise

The company has earmarked a £250,00 investment to establish a deer enterprise. This investment includes fencing, handling facilities as well as purchasing 100 hinds with the intention of increasing the number to 400 in the future. A detailed business plan has been created and a consultant foresees that the enterprise will have generated £90,000 profit within six years. 

Sion was thanked for his time and enthusiasm whilst showing and explaining the different aspects of the business as well as highlighting the plethora of possible weaknesses within traditional agricultural businesses today. We had a day to remember and Sion has provoked thought amongst members to consider something relevant to their businesses at home.

Day 3

The group travelled to the Cumbria uplands to receive a presentation and demonstration by Katy Cropper on the art of training, rearing and preparing sheepdogs for mountain work. Katy Cropper has diversified, giving demonstration and offering sheepdog handling training to farmers and shepherds as well as training and teaching her own dogs. Katy was the first woman to win the ‘One Man and His Dog’ television series and sat on the panel of judges for the competition in 2014. With extensive experience of shepherding in the Welsh and English uplands, she is renowned and very successful in getting the best out of her animals. She has worked in the field for over twenty-eight years and is able to transfer knowledge to her audience in an adept and interesting manner. The group enjoyed the visit and had their eyes opened to the different methods of sheepdog training.

Next steps

As a result of the visit the majority of the group will look at their businesses in a different light and consider the possibilities available as well as the potential of their farms at home. Members learnt how important record keeping is to ensuring that an enterprise is paying and that every aspect and option should be reviewed regularly. Some members are also considering changing the breed of their cattle or sheep as a result of the visit. Sion has certainly inspired the group and some members will consider benchmarking in the future.

Following the visit, the group have decided to invite Paul Williams, Farmers Guardian Beef Farmer of the Year, to give a presentation at one of their meetings. Paul and Sioned Williams are progressive farmers and record many details similar to what is done at Bowhill but on a much smaller scale. They will provide information that is more relevant and practical and it is hoped that members will be able to relate better in terms of their businesses at home. The group will also receive a presentation on Farming Connect’s Measure to Manage scheme.