By Debbie James

High volumes of rainfall are part and parcel of farming at nearly 3,000 feet so, rather than resist the elements, Emlyn Roberts is generating an income from exploiting the power of nature.

“I don’t dislike the rain as much as I used to!’’ declares Emlyn, who farms at Esgairgwar, a 450-hectare (ha) hill farm at Rhydymain near Dolgellau.

As the fourth generation of his family to farm Esgairgawr, the conditions and the terrain are all he has ever known.

His relationship with the natural environment has been cemented with the installation of a 350kW hydro energy generation scheme, which capitalises on the combination of the farm’s gradient – 2,970 feet at its highest point – and annual rainfall.

“It provides long term income and stability, if we are preaching sustainability we have to act on it,’’ says Emlyn, who is the NFU Cymru county chairman for Meirionnydd.

He has been farming in partnership with his parents, Trebor and Anwen, for 25 years and lives at Esgairgawr with his wife, Catrin, and their two children, Dafydd and Llio.

The Roberts family first became tenants of Esgairgawr in 1913; in 1985 they grasped an opportunity of buy the holding, then owned by the Forestry Commission but run as a Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) farm.

The farm is, as Emlyn describes, ‘top heavy’.

“Around 350 hectares is at height,’’ he says.

That isn’t without its challenges but of this he is matter of fact.

“We have been dealt a pack of cards and we try to do the best we can.’’

At the core of that policy is stocking the farm with livestock bred to thrive in unforgiving terrain – Welsh mountain ewes and Welsh black cattle.

The sheep flock consists of 780 purebred Welsh mountain, 20 badger-faced Welsh and 50 crossbred ewes.

The flock is mostly tupped with a Welsh mountain but Charollais and Texel tups are also used.

In recent years, to reduce labour and feed inputs, there has been a shift from indoor to outdoor lambing. Now only the twins lamb indoors, from March 20, with the pure Welsh mountain ewes lambing outside from the beginning of April.

The lambs are grass-fed.

“We might need to supplement some of the last ones to be sold but if the grass is good that is the cheapest feed we can get,’’ says Emlyn.

He finishes all the lambs and sells these from the end of June through to the end of January, with most sold deadweight because he says the feedback on lamb carcases is advantageous.

“Welsh lambs can be penalised on the live market, only 25 per cent of ours are above 15kg,’’ says Emlyn. The majority achieve R3L or R3H grades.

The 30-cow spring-calving suckler herd is mostly Welsh blacks but some Stabilisers have been introduced recently. This composite breed has been bred specifically for the purpose of producing milk and protein and, like the Welsh black, they are easy calving.

The herd is sired with a Limousin bull and the progeny sold at Dolgellau market as forward stores at 12-18 months.

The herd is housed from October to the beginning of May, depending on the weather and ground conditions.

“It’s a long winter,’’ Emlyn admits. “It is all loose housing so we spend a lot of money on straw but with straw comes potash, we have a lot of farmyard manure going out onto the land.’’

The autumn calvers are supplemented with sugar beet to support fertility but the bulk of their feed is home-grown big bale silage.

The herd has been spared bovine TB but Emlyn worries that the net is closing in. “It is getting closer by the month, I can see it becoming a problem.’’

He has blunt words for the Welsh Government’s eradication policy.

“I don’t think they are tackling the issue, the facts are out there but they are sitting on the fence.

“For 26 years I have worked the farm in environmental schemes, the habitats are there but the biggest problem is vermin. The traditional species can’t get established because the vermin populations are too strong. It should be a balance but we have lost that.’’