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Better grazing for beef sustainability: Focus on improving grass utilisation

Well managed grassland has the potential to help beef producers achieve better returns, but is an often overlooked resource.

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McDonald’s new project aims to improve the sustainability of beef systems through better grass use.
McDonald’s new project aims to improve the sustainability of beef systems through better grass use.

To tackle this issue, McDonald’s is embarking on a ‘Better Grazing’ project, which aims to improve the sustainability of beef systems through improved grass utilisation.

 

Alice Willett, agricultural consultant at McDonald’s, says the goal is to promote beef sustainability, which is ‘why we are working closely with farmers and beef suppliers to support the development of industry resources and disseminate agricultural and scientific expertise’.

 

Annie Rayner, from FAI Farms, who will be supporting the project, explains that it will follow three farms over three years and will document how the farms fare; looking at the benefits of improved grassland utilisation, and also address what the barriers and challenges are.

 

She says: “We will provide the participating farmers with detailed support on their journey to improve productivity through a process of growing improved quality and quantity of grass and forage, grazed at the right time by moving from set-stocking to planned rotational grazing.”

 

As well as providing data to justify the benefits of rotational grazing, McDonald’s hopes the project will help accelerate industry progress.

 

Ms Rayner says: “Ultimately we want to improve the resilience of the UK and Irish beef industry, and are working towards a goal of reducing reliance on soy across McDonald’s UK and Irish farms.”

 

For more details look at the Mcdonalds Beef Sustainability Hub.

 

IN THE FIELD – NEWFORD HERD FARM, CO GALWAY

 

With a small grazing platform, paddock grazing has been used at Newford’s suckler demonstration farm to maximise output since the farm was set up in 2015. Newford is a project supported by McDonald’s to demonstrate best practice in sustainable suckler beef production.

 

The 58 hectares (138 acres) demonstration farm is split into more than 70 paddocks across four different blocks of land and a 21-day rotation is used to graze the 100 Angus and Hereford cross Friesian cows, and with all progeny taken to slaughter as heifers and steers.

 

Matthew Murphy, Dawn Meats agriculutre manager (Ireland), who until his recent promotion managed the Newford suckler demonstration farm, says: “The stocking rate is 2.5 livestock units per hectare, so we need to have a grazing infrastructure in place to ensure we are growing as much grass as we can.

 

“Average grass growth in Ireland is about 6t/ha/year for a beef and sheep farm, but we achieved 15t/ha/year in 2017.”


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Last year this figure dipped to 12t/ha/year, but even in a difficult growing year, Mr Murphy says the paddock system meant they had made 120 round silage bales as surplus silage when growing conditions were more favourable in May.

 

“When the pressure hit later in summer, we were able to feed back those bales and not eat into our winter feed supply or purchase additional feed.”

 

Grass growth is measured weekly, meaning decisions can be made about how the paddocks are managed and it also means the performance of each paddock can be tracked.

 

“We can see our best paddocks are growing more than 20t/ha/year, while our worse are doing below 10t/ha/year, so a decision can be made on which paddocks to reseed annually.”

 

“We are able to get cattle out earlier in spring and stay out later in autumn. Even if paddocks need to be split in half, they can graze each side in a few hours so as not to make a mess.”

 

Steers are achieving daily liveweight gains of 1.1kg and heifers 1kg, but Mr Murphy says an additional benefit is the gained at breeding time.

 

“We are 100 per cent AI, so paddock grazing is advantageous when it comes to getting cows in for AI. When we go to bring them in to AI them they just think they are being moved paddocks.”

 

For more on Newford, go to newfordsucklerbeef.ie

 

WHAT IS ROTATIONAL GRAZING?

 

James Daniel, director of Precision Grazing, will be providing the farmers involved in the project with advice on implementing rotational grazing.

 

He explains that there are many types of grazing that fall under the broad ‘rotational’ umbrella, and these include: paddock grazing, cell grazing, techno-grazing, mob grazing and holistic grazing.

 

Mr Daniel says: “These approaches may differ in technique but all follow the same principle of moving livestock between fields or paddocks on a regular basis to avoid over-grazing and provide plants with sufficient time to recover before the next grazing.”

 

He adds that over-grazing, when the plant is eaten before it has sufficiently recovered, reduces the plant’s performance and if it happens regularly it can lead to the plant dying.

 

“How often animals should move depends on stocking rate, and type, pasture type and required animal performance.”

 

Mr Daniel says the biggest advantage of rotational grazing compared to set-stocking is the increased forage production, particularly in spring and autumn.

 

He says: “The general rule of thumb is that a well-managed rotational grazing can increase quality of forage production by 30-70 per cent each year.

 

A farm that achieves this will often notice pasture starts growing two to four weeks earlier compared to neighbouring farms.”

INCREASING PRODUCTION FROM ROTATIONAL GRAZING

  • Increased autumn production by minimising over-grazing allowing higher amounts of pasture to be taken in winter
  • Grazing fields in order and not re-grazing after December 1 to provide 120-days of rest
  • Adding in supplementary feed when required to leave more pasture on farm than normal
  • Starting spring with a more pasture on-farm to enable spring growth potential to be maximised
  • Setting up to turn some animals out to pasture earlier than normal to utilise spring grass

TIPS FOR STARTING A ROTATIONAL GRAZING STRATEGY – JAMES DANIEL

  • If thinking about starting rotational grazing, consider autumn as a good time to begin. By doing it as this time of year, the grazing season will be extended. This will have a positive economic benefit through improved animal performance and potential cost reduction
  • Locate a group of four to six fields and allocate one flock or herd to those fields, moving animals every five to eight days. If the group cannot graze a field within eight days if should be split in half using a temporary electric fence
  • Lambs, dry ewes or growing cattle make excellent options to start rotational grazing

OTHER ADVANTAGES OF ROTATIONAL GRAZING VERSUS SET STOCKING

  • Increased soil fertility higher stocking rates means animals spread their manure around the whole field. Plants that are over-grazed will have a smaller root mass, which leads to less soil organic matter
  • Reduction in need for nitrogen fertiliser – by minimising over-grazing and improving utilisation more pasture is available which reduces the need for purchased nitrogen fertiliser
  • Increased resistance to drought – increased soil organic matter retains water and combined with deeper rooting depths means pasture is more resilient
  • Animal management and labour – moving animals regularly allows opportunity to assess animal health and welfare, and animals become used to the routine of being moved and respond positively to people

Measuring success in beef

Measuring success in beef

Through their Farm Forward programme, McDonald’s aims to help farmers run thriving sustainable businesses, able to invest with confidence in the future. By undertaking research, sharing knowledge and tools and actively investing in the future of farming McDonald's is helping beef farmers tackle the ‘three Es’ of sustainability: economics; ethics; and environment.

 

Sponsored by McDonald's
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