Maximising beef production from homegrown forages is helping a Monmouthshire livestock farmer to keep control of his costs, writes Debbie James.

Nigel Bowyer fattens 60 cattle annually at Ty Coch, a 200-acre farm at Llanbado, near Usk.

He either buys weaned calves or stores at livestock markets or fattens 12-week-old calves on contract for Blade Farming.

A condition of the Blade contract is that the animals must be at grass for six months of the year. The bulk of the winter diet is grown on farm too.

Homegrown maize, barley, wheat and grass silage are included in the ration. Nigel, immediate past president of NFU Cymru in Monmouthshire, said home-produced feeds protect the business from forage shortages and rising feed costs. “We only buy in minerals and protein,’’ he said.

“There are lots of options for growing forages on farm. Fibre and starch contents vary, depending on how they have been harvested.’’

Nigel is currently fattening his third batch of Aberdeen Angus-cross calves for Blade. He aims to finish the cattle at 18-20 months, at weights of between 280kg-360kg and a carcase conformation of R4L.

He takes a different approach with the cattle he fattens for a butcher in Usk. He sources Limousin-cross heifers from single suckler herds, selecting the cattle on conformation. “The butcher is looking for a good shape on the carcase so we buy calves that match what he needs. The quality of the meat is very important.’’

Nigel understands why independent retailers insist on quality. His late father, Reg, ran nursery in Usk with Nigel’s uncle, Eddie. The fruit and vegetables were produced at Ty Coch.

When Eddie retired the nursery was sold and Reg gave up market gardening. The family then concentrated on livestock production.

Nigel had always wanted to farm. He studied agriculture at Aberystwyth and completed a work placement at a farm in Herefordshire before returning to the family farm.

Not only is there a beef enterprise at Ty Coch but a sheep flock too. The 280-ewe flock of Mules and Texel-crosses lamb indoors in February and March. Lambs are sold deadweight to ABP in Langport and Nigel also sells some locally.

Although Nigel and his wife, Ann, are the first generation to farm livestock at Ty Coch they are hoping they won’t be the last. Two of their children, Charlie and Laura, both graduated from Harper Adams this year. Their other son, Robert, is a mechanical engineer who helps out on the farm at weekends.

But Nigel worries about the challenges bovine TB is placing on existing and future generations of Welsh beef and dairy farmers.

Ty Coch is in a TB hotspot and the Bowyers have had personal experience of the disease on the farm.

He questions the Welsh government’s approach to dealing with the disease, by vaccinating badgers. “What is the Welsh government going to do if by the end of the trial the vaccination programme is shown to have had no reduction in bovine TB in cattle? Does the Welsh government have a plan B?’’

Nigel said TB was impacting heavily on dairy and beef producers. “Farmers who are locked in a continual cycle of TB breakdowns can’t get rid of their stock. There are farmers in this area who have been locked up with TB for years.’’

He also has concerns about the impact of the government’s decision to reduce the Pillar 1 direct payment by introducing the maximum 15% rate of modulation in Wales.

“Monmouth is the land of small farms, farmers are going to find it very difficult to survive going forward,’’ he said.

“As farmers we are looking to the Welsh government to return some of that modulation money through the Rural Development Plan but they are not making it easy. If farmers want to access a sustainability and production grant for instance, at the lower end of the scale they would have to spend £45,000 to get £16,000 back. A lot of farmers aren’t in a position to finance that sort of spending.

“The industry needs a scheme that farmers can access that can fund small projects on farm that can improve productivity and efficiency.’’

With price pressure on nearly every farming sector, Nigel said it was time that supermarkets threw their weight behind Welsh farming. “I don’t know what the answer is but I know it would certainly help if the supermarkets were more supportive of Welsh producers. Now is not the time to be importing cheap produce,’’ he said.