Dairy farming is a capital-intensive business but, by sourcing secondhand equipment and keeping labour costs in-house, the Besent family spent just £27,000 on creating infrastructure to support an 80-cow milking herd.
Hugh and Eluned and their eldest son, Dafydd, had been running a suckler-to-beef enterprise at Machynlleth until 2015.
The change of direction followed Dafydd’s attendance at the NFU’s annual conference as a next generation committee delegate.
A dairy sector meeting at that conference confirmed what the family had thought for a considerable time.
“We had been discussing the change to milk as it seemed that however intense the suckler system the returns were not there,’’ says Hugh.
It marked a move back to milk production for Hugh, who grew up on a 200-cow dairy farm in Dorset.
After graduating in agricultural economics from the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, he worked for the Fatstock Marketing Corporation in London and in the south of England, and later became group secretary for the NFU in Welshpool.
He met and married Eluned, a school teacher and farmer’s daughter from Penmaen isa, Pennal, near Machynlleth.
The couple have four children – Dafydd, who is 30, Sioned, who works as a personal trainer, Heledd, a teacher in Lampeter, and Trystan, who recently graduated from Manchester University with a degree in aerospace engineering.
In 1988, a few months after they married, Eluned’s father suffered a stroke and, two years later, this resulted in them coming to farm Penmaen isa.
At that time the farm was supporting 14 suckler cows and 300 Welsh ewes; stock numbers were increased to 70 cows and 450 crossbred ewes.
After Dafydd came home to farm in 2012, the idea of establishing a dairy at Penmaen isa gained momentum.
The decision to revert to milk production was made possible financially with the acquisition of two second-hand milking parlours – a 16/16 and a 12/12 – and a third, a 5/10, that came free with the bulk tank.
They dismantled the parlours and used parts from all of them to create a 16/16 herringbone parlour with automatic cluster removal at a total cost of £3,000.
That wasn’t the only job they did themselves; they gutted an old cow stall and installed the milking parlour in its place. They then revamped all the remaining cattle sheds and fitted cubicle housing and feed bunkers.
Heifers were sourced from a farm in Denbighshire and cows were bought from several different places, while being mindful of bovine TB.
The breed they settled on was a Friesian x Holstein.
At breeding, sexed semen from genomic bulls is used to breed replacements with synchronisation used to control oestrus in heifers.
Protein averages 3.48 per cent and butterfat 4.49 per cent with cows yielding an average of 6,300 litres from twice-a-day milking.
Aberdeen Angus beef sires are used once the number of replacements required has been satisfied and a Hereford stock bull is used to sweep up.
The herd calves in a 16-week block from September. “We are trying to reduce the spread of the calving block but it isn’t easy to get cows to bull in the middle of winter with short days!’’ says Hugh.
At up to 70 inches, the farm has a high annual rainfall average but cows are mostly turned out to graze in March by day only; they then remain at grass until housing in November, weather permitting.
The 360-acre farm only grows grass – three cuts of silage are made annually – and there is a large expanse of salt marsh which the dry cows and heifers graze.
The decision to diversify into dairying is one the family is pleased they have taken and are confident they have a strong future in milk production, not least because they have an autumn production profile.
However, the threat of rolling out nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) regulations across the whole of Wales is one that weighs quite heavily on Hugh’s mind.
He describes the proposal as “unrealistic’’, the equivalent of “taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut’’.
“There needs to be a sensible and workable solution, and there is existing legislation to deal with bad practices.’’