By Debbie James

Owen Watkins was barely taller than the first ewe he bought with his savings – as he was just seven years old at the time.

Fast forward 31 years and with 650 ewes and a profitable beef enterprise to his name, what would that young boy make of the successful livestock business he has since built up with his father?

“Luck has played a part in it but I’ve also worked hard, I’m not afraid of work!’’ laughs Owen.

That strong work ethic was evident from a very young age, recalls his mother, Ann.

“Owen was his father’s shadow, he always wanted to be out on the farm.’’

At that time the family was farming 200 acres at Caenantmelyn on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye. Fifty-five acres of adjoining land have since been acquired and, for the last eight years, 170 acres have been rented. With this increase in acreage has come expansion of the livestock enterprise.

Owen and his father, Philip, are loyal to the Texel x Welsh mule. They source 30 white face mules as replacements from the autumn sales at Builth Wells.

“We prefer the white face because they have strong teeth,’’ says Owen, who became a partner in the farm business at 20 and is the 2018/19 NFU Cymru/NFU Mutual Welsh Livestock Champion of the Year.

The flock is a good match for the farm’s topography, with land rising from 600 feet to 1300.

The flock is prolific – it scanned at 185 per cent last season.

“We project over a 1,000 lambs and this year we should sell or keep 920,’’ says Owen.

After scanning, twin-bearing ewes graze six acres of swedes, which are direct drilled in July. Any crop that remains after the ewes are housed is grazed by the ewe lambs.

Owen favours three-in-one feeders, to feed protein pellet and barley to twin-bearing ewes. At housing, ewes receive an 18 per cent protein concentrate.

The sheep enterprise also includes 70 pure Texels, registered as the Caenantmelyn flock. This flock lambs indoors in February; it is a Maedi Visna (MV) accredited flock and, as such, is run separately from the commercial flock and has its own lambing shed.

The commercial flock also lambs indoors, from March 9 to the middle of April; ewes and lambs are turned out to grass immediately after lambing.

To maximise returns, as many lambs as possible are finished off grass – 90 per cent of the single-born lambs are sold before they are weaned.

Owen applies the same efficient approach to his beef enterprise.

He runs a herd of Limousin and Limousin x British blue suckler cows and sources 18 bucket heifer calves at three or four weeks old from markets in May; these are finished at 18-20 months, at 290-300kg, and sold to APB while the calves from the suckler herd are sold as strong stores at 12-18 months through Brecon market.

Sentimentality doesn’t get in the way of Owen’s decision-making. Cows that calve outside the two-and-a-half month calving blocks are culled.

“The cows have to perform, we cull hard and concentrate on bloodlines that produce milky cows,’’ he says.

Owen’s work ethic is not confined to farming – he also works up to three days a week as a builder.

This parallel career started by chance, when he was studying agriculture part-time at college in Brecon.

“We were only farming 200 acres at the time and it wasn’t viable for me to be at home all the time,’’ he recalls.

A local house damaged by fire needed rebuilding and Owen was asked to help with the rebuild.

“It was only supposed to be for a short time but 10 years later and I’m still working for him!’’ he says.

Working off farm is his form of diversification.

“There is a lot of potential for farmers’ sons to get a trade, diversification doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money on your farm,’’ he suggests.

Owen, whose partner, Rachel Gittoes helps him on the farm, says he will expand the farming enterprise if he can take on more land but, in the meantime, his building work provides valuable income.