CARMARTHENSHIRE farmer Bryan Thomas has dedicated his working life to being a dairy man. Originally tenants at Berllan Dywyll in Llangathen, which is today a 270 acre holding, Bryan and his wife Mary have been owner occupiers since the early 90s.
The farm is situated in the picturesque Towy valley, well known for its productive riverside grazing. The couple, held in high regard within the local industry for their progressive approach to farming, have over the years steadily built up a predominantly pedigree Holstein dairy herd. Liquid milk is sold to Mueller on an annual contract with the high yield herd of 210 cows currently producing around 9,000 litres per cow annually.
About ten years ago, aware that they needed to start planning for the future as both their sons had followed careers away from the farm, Bryan and Mary commissioned John Crimes, a partner with agriculture consultancy CARA Wales, to help them map out the future strategic direction of the farm business to ensure its long term sustainability.
In addition to providing the couple with business and technical advice, which saw them investing heavily in the farm’s infrastructure including a new herringbone milking parlour, improving grazing management and increasing stock levels, time was also spent discussing how the business could continue to thrive when Bryan, then in his early sixties, felt ready to scale back his day to day involvement with the business, particularly the demanding physical side.
Bryan decided to trial introducing a new young farmer into the business some years ago. The arrangement didn’t work out to the satisfaction of either party, but Bryan says he learnt a lot from the experience.
“You don’t necessarily find the ideal match the first time, but I was still open to finding a longer term solution than merely taking on an assistant herdsman on an employer/employee basis.”
“Both parties need to do thorough research and take sufficient time to consider whether a joint venture would work out – probably a minimum six to 12 month trial period – or long enough to build up a good relationship, based on trust and complete transparency about your future hopes and aspirations.
“Without questioning your motivation and considering what both sides have to offer in terms of assets and skills, you risk ending up with entirely different views on the future direction of the business and how it should be managed on a day to day basis,” says Bryan.
Keen to help, when John was introduced to Dyfrig Davies, the younger brother of one of his local dairy clients, he spotted an opportunity. John still describes Dyfrig as a ‘dairy fanatic’! Hugely impressed by the youngster’s work ethic, his commitment to dairy farming combined with an interest in genetics, breeding and stock, he soon realised that Dyfrig, who had worked at neighbouring farms from an early age, was a very able and likeable young herdsman who despite his youth, had acquired a huge amount of practical knowledge and hands-on experience.
Dyfrig, then in his early twenties, was single, living at home quite close to Berllan Dywyll, earning a good income from contract dairying and as he freely admits, with very few responsibilities in life!
John says Dyfrig took some persuading that he also needed a long-term plan if he wanted to progress beyond being a contract herdsman, working long, demanding hours without prospect of any personal career development. Fortunately, his older, more experienced brother Meurig realised that mentoring and a gentle but persuasive steer was called for if Dyfrig was to have the confidence to take on the new challenge of working alongside this hugely experienced farmer.
The ‘match’ was made and ten years later, Dyfrig freely admits that Bryan’s offer was ‘the chance of a lifetime’. The trial arrangement proved so satisfactory for both families, that months extended seamlessly into years. In 2015, thanks to the support which had become available through Farming Connect’s Venture programme, the partnership received fully funded business, financial and legal advice which enabled them to create a balanced formal agreement, working out how best to share both the rewards and risks of the joint venture.
“Thanks to the Venture programme, both parties received customised support which enabled them to address the technical and relationship-building aspects of creating a strong and successful business-to-business relationship so that they have a formal balanced agreement within an appropriate legal framework,” says John.
By today, there is a four-strong partnership which goes from strength to strength at Berllan Dywyll. Dyfrig now in his early thirties, is a full time farmer, with a personal stake in this very successful farm and a family man too! Together with wife Anjulie and their two small sons, the couple live in a spacious, comfortable detached house, just a few hundred yards from the main farmyard.
For Bryan and Mary, the arrangement means they have been able to stay at their family farm while also scaling back their involvement and day to day commitment, knowing that the future direction of the farm will one day be in Dyfrig’s very competent and loyal hands.
Dyfrig already has a say in the breeding strategy which involves breeding all replacements and has moved the herd over to block calving to simplify the system. The partnership was able to commission John to produce an updated business plan, with a three year financial forecast, fully funded through Farming Connect’s Advisory Service as part of the Venture process. Farming Connect, which is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra Wales, is funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
“Our partnership focuses as much on forward planning and strategic management practices as on the day to day business of farming and dairying. We both learn from each other and both make full use of Farming Connect services,” says Bryan.
With the recent installation of new water troughs and a move towards rotational grazing, the farm has a policy of hard grazing through the summer and feeding a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) in winter. Past issues with TB are now resolved, and although seasonal flooding remains an ongoing risk factor, improved grassland management has reduced the overall impact of this.
Bryan and Mary and Dyfrig and Anjulie are equal partners in the business, so all major decisions such as capital investments are made democratically, with John Crimes facilitating round table discussions. Farm profits are shared equally after pre-agreed salaries have been deducted.
The relationship between us all has gone from strength to strength and it is very reassuring to know that we are all firmly focused on working together to create new opportunities which safeguard not only our respective livelihoods, but the future of the farm too.
We were already in an informal partnership arrangement with Dyfrig but thanks to Farming Connect’s Venture programme we’ve now been able to put everything on a formal footing which gives both sides long-term security.
I feel very privileged to be a partner in the business Bryan has built up over many years. We have a fantastic working relationship built on trust, friendship and mutual respect. It’s incredibly rewarding and motivating to know that I’m personally involved in the future prosperity of the business, not merely an employee.
Not everyone will be lucky enough to find the perfect match immediately, but that shouldn’t prevent any young farmer from aiming high and considering a joint farming arrangement. The Venture programme will provide them with the guidance they need along the way!
Farming Connect, which is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra, is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and Welsh Government.