In every monthly edition we’ll be meeting a farmer or agricultural household to find out a little bit more about life on their farm.
First up is the Howells family of Shadog in the Teifi Valley, Gary, Meinir and their children, Sioned and Dafydd.
Ym mhob un rhifyn misol byddwn yn cwrdd â ffermwr neu uned amaethyddol i wybod ychydig mwy amdanyn nhw.
Yn y gyntaf yn y gyfres rydym yn mynd i fferm Shadog yn Nyffryn Teifi, cartref Gary a Meinir Howells a’u plant, Sioned a Dafydd – teulu adnabyddus ym myd amaeth, a sêr y rhaglen deledu, Ffermio – Teulu Shadog.
Meinir Howells is a familiar face for those in the farming industry in Wales. Together with husband Gary and their children Sioned and Dafydd, they run Shadog, a beef and sheep farm near Llandysul. Meinir was brought up on Maesteilo farm not far from Llandeilo and first joined the Ffermio team as a researcher before becoming a presenter on the long-running S4C series. As well as Ffermio, Meinir presents the S4C coverage of the Royal Welsh Show and Winter Fair.
Gary was brought up on his parent’s farm, Tycam, Llanwennog, near Llanybydder. Meinir moved to Shadog when the couple got married in 2014. Together they farm around 450 acres, with some 600 sheep and 100 ewe lambs, keeping pedigree Texel ewes, Suffolks, Balwens, Charolais, Beltex and Blueface, along with a small flock of commercial ewes. They also keep 200 head of cattle.
In 2019 Gary won the NFU Welsh Livestock Champion of the Year Award.
The couple are always aiming to innovate and experiment at Shadog, with new breeds and new ventures being explored each year – some of their latest projects have included keeping pigs, rearing Aberdeen Angus cattle and even producing honey from their own bee hives. They have also held their own Shadog Flock Production Sale over the last three years.
Life at Shadog has been captured in two S4C series, Ffermio – Teulu Shadog, the latest of which aired this month (January 2023) and which can be seen on BBC iplayer or S4C Clic.
Describe your average day on the farm at the start of the year.
GARY: An average day for us this time of the year, just before lambing starts, we get up fairly early, quick breakfast and out we go. Meinir usually does the scraping, and me the feeding, carrying silage and cake. By the time we’ve finished doing this it’s usually around 10am. We’re just starting with the calving at the moment and everything is down tools if a calf starts coming…but we aim for a cuppa around ten, half past ten. We’ll go back out then to try to do some job or other – we try to get one job done every day, something other than the feeding and bedding, it’s good to achieve something every day.
There’s no telling when lunchtime will be and sometimes when the children are in school we miss it completely. Tea at teatime though! Usually we’ve finished the feeding so we don’t have much of that to do in the night, just a walk around the stock, pushing some silage up. By 6 o’clock we’re ready to go to the house. Of course sometimes there’s extra work to do and we’ll work on until 10 or 11pm, or if a cow is calving or some drama, there’s always something!
MEINIR: No working day is the same, and you wake in the morning thinking, right, I’m going to do this, this and this today, but once you go out there’s some problem and everything changes. But usually we are outside until it gets dark, whatever time that is – other than if there’s a job in the shed where there’s light. And when we’re lambing of course, any plan goes out the window because someone has to be in the shed every two hours, day and night.
Usually, during lambing, one of us stays up until 2 or 3am and then the other will wake a bit earlier and carries on from there. We work shifts and we set eachother’s alarm – when one goes to bed we’ll set the alarm for the other, that’s how it works! We’re a good team I think. If there’s a problem or when a cow is calving, we’re both at it.
GARY: Yes, nothing ever has a set time does it? And throughout the year different things happen every hour, day and night.
MEINIR: We start the lambing at end of January and then lamb through to late April, early May. We calve then at the same time. It’s hard, going from one shed to another and it’s a juggling act, but then as we have to be up in the night anyway, we might as well do the two jobs at the same time! We’re lucky, the children are amazing, out late at night. There’s not much fuss with them, they do what we do. I think it’s one of the best upbringings you can have, you learn how things work, you learn to respect things and you also learn that the more work and effort you put into something, the bigger the reward at the end. With animals, the more you look after them, the more they’ll look after you.
GARY: The children appreciate what things are worth, don’t they? And we never go anywhere much, only Royal Welsh and things like that, never holidays abroad or a week off here and there…but talking to friends in town and we see how lucky we are, our children have plenty of space and freedom and they’re never bored!
Do you want the children to go into farming?
GARY: When Meinir was pregnant I was delighted to think there’d be another generation to take over the farm. But as things are with farming at the moment and the lack of support from the Government, I think I’d prefer to see them do something else…maybe see Dafydd become a carpenter or plumber or something! I don’t know if I want to see the children go into an industry where there’s so much against you.
MEINIR: I don’t think there’s any respect for farmers at the moment. Until the world sees that you need people to grow the food to feed the population, that’s not going to change.
Does anyone work with you on the farm?
MEINIR: We’re a family farm, we don’t employ much of anyone else. We get some contractors in and have some help during lambing but otherwise it’s just Gary and me at it day to day, and the children are with us, so it’s a real family farm.
What’s the thing you enjoy most about this time of year and what’s the worst?
GARY: The best thing for me, the shortest day has gone and the day is getting longer and you hope that better weather is coming. You enjoy the challenges, the calving and the lambing and you’re looking forward to the spring and summer. Around October, it’s doom and gloom then, but this time of the year, you can see the end of the winter, it’s a good time. You see the lambs coming, new life, spring on its way, you feel better, even though you’re tired.
MEINIR: We don’t like the Autumn, do we? We feel everything closing in, feel low, and then woosh, we hit lambing and Spring is coming. The lambing and calving can be very challenging, some days can be tough when you’re aching all over, totally exhausted and feel everything is going wrong so you might as well have stayed in bed, but then when you have a cracking Texel ram lamb, or when the children come into the shed from school singing and dancing, it just gives you a lift, you remember why you do it and off you go again.
GARY: The thing that really gets us down though is TB. It can destroy things overnight.
Is there an item of machinery you couldn’t be without?
MEINIR: Gary couldn’t be without the bobcat or the bike – he’s on one of them pretty much twelve hours a day!
Is there any item of machinery that has changed how you farm / made things easier?
GARY: I think the most useful bit of kit we’ve bought recently is the GPS for the tractor. We had an Efficiency Grant and one of the things we bought was the GPS to help put fertilizer down – it’s fantastic. After you’ve done the first cut you can take fertilizer out pretty much before the harvester is out of the field since you don’t need tracks to follow – because you follow the GPS on the tractor screen. You can gain around 10 days or a fortnight then trying to get the second cut ready. You can go out on a dull day – usually you’d struggle to see the tracks to keep the distance correct, but with the GPS you can go anytime, you don’t need dew or any mark and you can do the fields easily, even in the middle of the night if you want! I’ve been out in the dark when we’ve run out of daylight, it’s fantastic.
The other thing is the CCTV camera to check the cattle calving. We’re calving heifers now and we’ll often sit here in the kitchen keeping an eye on them. You don’t disturb them doing it like this either. If you see they need help, you go, otherwise you just keep an eye from here and let things happen naturally.
MEINIR: It’s useful to check if a calf is suckling too – sometimes you’re not sure and with the CCTV you can check without disturbing them. The heifers that are calving for the first time, we’ve got 50 of them and they can be ‘diawled’, kicking the calves and things. But they don’t do it when you’re there with them, so this way we can just quietly watch from a distance and pick up on things you’d not see otherwise.
What’s your top lambing tips?
MEINIR: Don’t keep sheep! But if you must – make sure you stock up with plenty of chocolate to keep you going through the nightshifts and make bulk lasagnes, pies and quiches for the freezer or you end up living on pizzas and takeaways!
What’s your favourite event on the farm?
MEINIR: I think it’s the sale we have in September. We have been selling our rams here on the farm – it started when the NSA sale was cancelled because of Covid and we had nowhere to sell the rams, we sell around 150 a year. But it’s now become a bit of an event, and Enfys Wyse brings her kitchen and we have a bar here and it’s a social. And then the following evening we have a concert to raise money for charity. So far we’ve raised money for the Wales Air Ambulance, Prostate Cancer and Tir Dewi. We said last year that it would be our third and final – but we might have one other! You heard it here first!
Diolch i Gary a Meinir am siarad gyda ni ar gyfer ein rhifyn cyntaf….many thanks to Gary and Meinir for talking to us for our first newsletter…we’ll be visiting other farms in the months to come.