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Maximising beef output from grass: How one farmer is reaping benefits of change

Beef farmer James Evans, who farms in a family partnership with his brother and father at Bishops Castle, Shropshire, said farmers should not be afraid to ask for help when embarking on new ventures.

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Maximising beef output from grass: How one farmer is reaping benefits of change

Mr Evans, speaking at a Farming Connect event, said: “As farmers, we are good at what we do as far as farming is concerned, but sometimes we need to remember we cannot do everything.

 

“Planning and managing a grazing system was out of my remit.”

 

He explained his family business ran over two units – the home farm, Walcot Farm, which spanned 364 hectares (900 acres), and Partridge Farm, which for the last 20 years was managed through a contract farming agreement and covered 526ha (1,300 acres) of grazing and arable land.

 

Mr Evans said it worked well for them that the suckler cows were split between the two farms; 190 calved in spring at Partridge Farm and 130 in autumn at Walcott Farm.

 

“Labour is thin on the ground,” he said. “It saves me being at two places at once when we are calving, and it gives us a continuous supply of cattle around the year.”

 

He explained that two years ago the owners of Partridge Farm dropped ‘the bombshell’ that they wanted to go organic.

 

“My view at the time was that organic is not profitable,” he said.

 

Profitable

 

“I panicked. I thought long and hard with a few sleepless nights worrying how I was going to make it work, and I realised I needed a bit of help if I was going to still be profitable and not have to reduce cattle numbers.”

 

He took advice from grazing consultant James Daniels.

 

“It was a different pair of eyes looking at my farm, he soon made me realise I did not have a plan,” said Mr Evans.

 

The decision was made to embark on an intensive grazing programme and money needed to be spent in a different way.

 

Rather than spending money on a wagon of feed or putting a new feeder wagon on hire purchase, Mr Evans invested £15,000 on electric fencing and said it was the best investment he had ever made.

 

About 28ha (70 acres) of the farm was used for the grazing platform, with the intention of rolling the system out across the whole farm.

 

The pedigree Stabiliser suckler cows were run in groups of 40-45 animals and, therefore, the paddock sizes were small.

 

Mr Evans said working out how to get water supplies to all the small paddocks was a challenge. He opted for surface piping with hydrants every 100 metres.

 

Mr Evans used a plate meter to measure grass availability and said it was one of the most important things he did.

 

“I measure grass now, which means I now treat grass in the same way as I would treat a bag of feed,” he said.


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“If we treated grass in the fields as we would a 22-23 per cent protein and 12.5 ME feed, I think we could look after it much better, because in essence that is what it is.”

 

Mr Evans worked on a daily dry matter feed intake of 2.5 per cent of the animal’s body weight, to work out the area required for the day’s grazing, or how frequently they required moving.

 

Changes

 

Improved grass utilisation meant Mr Evans was able to graze bulls, rather than finishing them on grain, and sold them at 18 months old rather than 12 months old, as he did before becoming organic.

 

Mr Evans said the main changes had been he no longer had a feed or fertiliser bill, as all cattle were grazed or fed forage.

 

Housing had reduced to three months per year, meaning the straw and silage requirement had halved.

 

He had a reduced labour requirement and was able to sell unused machinery such as the straw chopper and feeder wagon, resulting in a reduction in depreciation costs.

 

Last year they were down with TB and Mr Evans said they made more money than previously.

 

“We had been purely focused on making more profit through more production, when actually the way I think I make more profit is by buying-in less,” he said.

IMPORTANCE OF CALCULATING GRASS SUPPLY

 

THE meeting was hosted by grazing beef farmer Gwion Owen who out-wintered his suckler cows, as well as running mobs of 12-month-old cattle.

 

They were grazed on 0.5ha (1.2-acre) blocks and moved every three days. Mr Owen explained the mobs of cattle weighed an average of 380kg, so at a predicted daily dry matter intake of 2 per cent of their body weight, they were expected to require 7.6kg DM/day/head, which meant each day the mob required 319kg DM.

 

With an expected initial cover of 3,200kg DM/hectare (1,285kg DM/acre, and leaving a residual of 1,500kg DM/ha (607kg DM/acre), this meant there was 1,700kg DM/ha (688kg DM/acre) available for grazing.

 

This cover, divided by the 319.2kg/day requirement for the mob meant each hectare had the potential to feed the 42 cattle for 5.3 days.

 

However, he said this did not take into account daily grass growth, which was expected to be about 30kg DM/ha/day (12kg DM/acre/day), and that wastage can be up to 20 per cent during a three-day shift.

 

Infrastructure

 

Mr Owen had a herd of 62 suckler cows which started calving outside at the beginning of May over an eight-week calving period, but he said it was his aim to reduce this to six weeks.

 

He said: “When running cattle in large mobs, the infrastructure for water needs to be in place. The flow is not great, so we needed larger troughs.”

 

The possibility of harvesting rain water in above ground tanks for use during dry periods was being investigated.

 

Mr Owen bred all his own replacements and aimed to calve all his heifers by 24 months old.

 

He said he retained heifers which had held in-calf to their first service, which naturally selected the most fertile females in the group.

 

All the cattle were DNA tested for the polled gene and for their coat colour genes. He also used the DNA testing to determine the parentage of the cattle, meaning he was able to run more cows to each bull, being sure they were not related.

 

All calves were DNA tested and weighed at birth, then weighed every 100 days to allow him to record a daily liveweight gain.

 

Efficiency

 

The 200-day weight of the calf was then compared with the mother’s livewight as a measure of efficiency. The average weight of one of Mr Owen’s mature cows was 580kg, but he said he was working to decrease this further.

 

Mr Owen’s target weight for bulling at 13 to 14 months old was 400kg. He said by serving lighter heifers he was managing to drive down the weight of the mature cow.

 

“Lighter cows means I can accommodate more cows,” he said.

 

However, he said this was not having a detrimental effect on his indoor bull beef finishing system in which the bulls were averaging
640kg at 12 to 13 months old.

 

“Some of the smallest cows are producing the largest calves and these bulls are finishing first,” he said.

 

“We are constantly learning and changing things. Sometimes you take the hits to gain efficiency the following year, but you are ready for them next time.”

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