Increased grassland reseeding with specialist leys and strategic use of different forage crops has led to a transformation in the performance of the Roberts family’s sheep and beef business.
Over a three-year period, the Roberts family at Ty Draw, Llanasa, on the north Wales coast, have put a greater focus on home-grown production.
This has led to increased stocking rates and a significant reduction in bought in feed costs at the 200-hectare (500-acre) unit, boosting output per hectare and overall profitability.
Change came about when the farm lost access to 73ha (180 acres) of rented ground at relatively short notice, forcing a rethink on the way the business was being run.
David Roberts says: “We recognised the need to start doing things differently.
“Rent and feed costs were rising, and when we then lost a significant acreage of land it became obvious that we needed to make better use of our greatest asset – the land we still had.”
Around the same time, David and son Mathew were encouraged to do more reseeding and gradually introduce some alternative forage crops.
David says: “It is not only the fact that we have reseeded more, but we have improved productivity by applying lime and nutrients at the correct time.
“We have worked with agronomist Rhys Owen, of Field Options and ProCam, who has helped ensure we have applied the right attention to detail, selecting the right fields for the right crops and checking on establishment and performance down the line.
“Despite farming fewer acres, we are keeping more ewes and finishing our own lambs earlier, and therefore have capacity for more store lambs later in the year.
“The biggest change is the quality of our grass silage and the difference this has made to our bought in feed costs.
“We are now typically making 11.5-12 ME silage, instead of 9.5-10 ME, and that is allowing us to virtually eliminate concentrate feeding to the ewes, saving as much as £3-£4/head in bought in concentrates.”
The current acreage farmed from Ty Draw includes an additional 20ha (50 acres) of old pasture ground that has been added and improved over the past couple of years, but that still means the farm is 53ha (130 acres) smaller in land area than before the change of approach.
Despite this, the flock of Texel cross Mules – bred to Texel rams and maintaining a lambing percentage of 185 per cent – has increased from 1,200 to 1,400 ewes.
And instead of buying in 800 store lambs to finish, the farm supports 2,000 additional lambs each year, bought in during the autumn and finished over winter.
Store lambs are all sold on contract to Morrisons, as are the finished cattle, and it was a prompt from the buyer that led to a change in the beef system, which now involves buying in British Blue cross calves from the dairy sector at four to five months of age.
“We have moved away from buying forward stores that were finished inside to a more extensive system,” David says.
“It means we are making better use of home-grown forage with the cattle, either as grazing or as quality silage, and we are producing a
beef product that meets Morrisons’ requirements.”
Increased grass silage quality is made possible by a reseeding strategy that now results in up to 16ha (40 acres) being reseeded each year with medium or long-term grass and clover mixtures.
Matthew says: “In addition to having better quality leys, we are also cutting earlier and more often.
“The result is clear to see in the silage analyses, which have significantly higher ME and – where we have red clover in the sward – about two to three percent more protein.
“The better quality silage has allowed us to cut out the concentrates for the ewes entirely, saving £5,000-£6,000 across the flock.
“We are now just feeding silage and some soya for extra protein, and that is a far simpler job, so we are also saving time and labour at a busy time of year.”
Shorter term leys also fit into the system. This year, a mixture that includes a persistent and hardy diploid ryegrass have provided a bumper yield of silage and will also serve as a run-back for ewes that will be over-wintered on fodder beet, before being cut again for silage next year.
“This crop went in after stubble turnips and has been cut four times this year,” Matthew says.
“It has yielded around 15 bales/acre in total and will now provide supplementary grazing for ewes being over-wintered on fodder beet.
“With the fodder beet and the brassicas, and with some rented grazing away from Ty Draw, we are able to rest the grassland from the end of November through to when we start lambing from mid-February. That is important, as it means we have ample fresh grazing for the ewes and lambs and are able to take our silage cuts earlier.
“We are now in a position where 90 per cent of our home-produced lambs are finished and away by the end of June.
“They are creep fed to achieve this, but that is a relatively low overall feed cost when you consider the savings that we are making everywhere else.”