Well managed grassland has the potential to help beef producers achieve better returns, but it is an often overlooked resource. In the second part of this series, we look at ways to maximise grassland utilisation.
Grass is one of the biggest resources beef producers have, yet it is often overlooked and, as a result, underperforms. And with bought-in feed representing one of the biggest costs on many beef farms, there is huge potential to improve farm profitability.
Tony Jackson, of Kite Consulting, says: “If we can improve the performance of forage, we can certainly improve the profitability of the farm.”
Mr Jackson says feedback from farmers attending the McDonald’s Sustainable Beef Clubs suggests soil structure and nutrient planning are the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to maximising grass utilisation.
He advises producers dig a hole early in the growing season to look how far roots and moisture extend into soil.
According to AHDB, grass roots should go down 30cm or more where soil depth allows. Compaction inhibits root penetration, seriously reduces grass yield and increases risk of soil and fertiliser run-off. Depending on level of compaction, there are ways to alleviate the problem in existing swards, but more commonly, it can be tackled as part of a reseed.
Mr Jackson says: “Make sure your soil nutrition and soil pH are adjusted. Producers should think about the silage clamp or pile of round bales in real monetary terms. There is a lot of money sitting there and you need to think how you can make it worth even more.”
When it comes to grass utilisation, it is important to start off by measuring how much is available in fields and how fast it is growing. Dr Liz Genever, of AHDB Beef and Lamb, says: “Matching livestock needs to grass availability is key to optimising output per animal and per hectare. There are many ways to measure the amount of grass available, including sward height in cm and weight per hectare in kg DM; also known as pasture cover.”
Pasture cover can be assessed using a rising plate meter or compressed sward stick, both of which will give you a kg DM/ha value. Dr Genever says: “Measuring pasture cover provides useful information for feed budgeting and rotation planning to optimise grazing management.”
When it comes to grazing strategies, Dr Genever says there are many ways to achieve sward height or pasture cover targets: “Generally, with a strategy which gives grass a rest, for example by moving stock to another field, the yield will go up by about 20 per cent. If the grazing pressure is then tightened, by putting in temporary fences, utilisation will be increased.”
A grazing plan will need to change throughout the season, as grass growth may not do what is predicted and weather can often be a factor.
Dr Liz Genever, of AHDB Beef and Lamb, says the best place to start is to break the farm down into separate rotations which are more manageable and different approaches can be used on different rotations.
She says: “A rotation planner can be used to understand the impact of animal group size and area. It can be used to adjust rotations as the season progresses.”
For AHDB’s online grazing planner click here
Gareth Davies, from grazing specialist Gareth Grassland, gives some tips on how to establish a paddock grazing system:
Divide the number of cows (30) by the suggested stocking rate of 1.4 to give you the area in hectares you require; in this case 22ha.
Mr Davies then suggests dividing this 22ha into a minimum of six paddocks each of about 3.6ha:
“These should then be grazed for four days. But remember, the more paddocks you have, the more grass you will grow, so eight 3ha paddocks, or even 12 2ha paddocks, would be even better.”
Case study: John and Alan Power,
To optimise the use of the farm’s own resources, beef farmer John Power and son Alan keep a close eye on grassland management. Through paddock grazing, they graze their 200-strong suckler cow herd for nine months/year with no concentrates, and this system helps achieve target liveweight gains for their finishing cattle.
John, a McDonald’s flagship farmer, explains the aim is to get cows and calves out as they calve from the end of February/beginning of March, with everything calving by April. Usually, cattle are out until the start of December.
He says: “A series of paddocks, between 1ha and 4ha (3-10 acres), linked by a network of trackways and complete with moveable fences and water troughs, has been set up. The groups of 40 cows and calves are moved between paddocks according to grass covers.”
When grass covers get ahead of cattle, paddocks are taken out of the rotation for silage. Following cutting, slurry is applied, using manure from finishing cattle at housing. Soil sampling takes place regularly and a limited amount of bagged nitrogen is used to keep soil N, P and K at the right levels.
John says: “The more we have gone down this rotational grazing route, the more I have realised this practice does mean a better bank balance."
“It fits with the McDonald’s three Es; economics, environment and ethics. We are reducing potential pasture damage from over-grazing and poaching, applying less fertiliser and having to reseed less. But we are still getting high weight gains. To me, this is a very sustainable way to farm.”