Infrastructure and equipment innovation is helping mixed farmer Jack Hanson to boost his grazing herd’s output without it costing the earth, reports Simon Wragg.
In an area renowned for high rents due to competition between growers of potatoes, cereals and energy crops for biomass, making the most of what you have already got has become a mantra for Jack Hanson.
Farming in partnership with his parents, Elwyn and Julie, at Fields Place Farm, Dilwyn, Leominster, Herefordshire, Mr Hanson explains: “We have 111 hectares here, with 56ha of grassland carrying 350 breeding ewes, 65 sucklers and their calves, and about 50 head of bought-in rearing cattle.
“A further 30ha is put down to arable crops, mainly cereals for feed and a smaller area of porridge oats, as well as 25ha of cider apple orchards.”
Traditionally, the farm has been set-stocked having areas of permanent pasture and some large fields of more than 10ha (25 acres) which are challenging to divide into paddocks.
Current stocking density is 2.96 livestock units/ha (1.2 units/acre). Demand for clean grazing in spring is high. The 350 Suffolk Mules, put to Texel and Charollais rams, begin lambing indoors as one block from February 20.
Around the same time, 65 Limousin and Charolais cross sucklers begin calving in a nine-week block.
“Traditionally, the flock is turned out to better grazing in set-stocked groups of 120 ewes due to the difficulty of moving them when they have young lambs at foot and a lack of infrastructure,” he explains.
“In contrast, the sucklers are turned out to the rotational grazing platform at about April 15. Having begun to develop the rotational grazing system my dad started some years ago, our future goal is to have the first round completed by that date.”
Currently, the grazing platform includes 34 ‘invisible’ paddocks for four groups of cattle split to ease the management of bulling groups. With an infrastructure of mains-powered electric fencing around most field perimeters, temporary additional fencing can be hooked up to create paddocks, he says.
Mr Hanson, who returned to the farm five years ago after studying agriculture at Harper Adams, says early results from the changes implemented are ‘encouraging’.
“In the first year we increased stocking rate on one area of the rotational grazing from two 400kg animals/acre to three, which convinced me of its potential.”
Walking fields and measuring covers with a sward stick had begun to make an impression of what impact the rotation was having.
Mr Hanson says: “Covers are more dense and vigorous.” This has been endorsed and accelerated in recent months, having become a participant in GrassCheck-GB, which uses a network of livestock farms countrywide to report grass growth and quality.
He says: “It has given me the discipline to go out and measure covers weekly during the season with a plate-meter, send off fresh samples for lab analysis fortnightly, and weigh cattle monthly to see what impact our decisions are having.
“In the past, we have made mistakes holding out for covers which were too high. We now move cattle through the paddocks every three days, aiming to go into a cover of 2,800kg dry matter [DM] per hectare if they have eaten down the initial paddock sufficiently,” he explains.
"Cattle, particularly younger ones, have taken some time to get used to the system, but it is paying off,” he says.
This year’s overall cattle weight gain should reflect the improvement in grass productivity and quality from changes in grazing management. Surplus grass is taken out as round bale silage as a winter feed.
“As an example of improved growth, we took 75 bales off the grazing platform in early June we had not had before. We need about 600 bales a year for cattle, plus 30 acres of hay as ewe feed during winter.”
Improving grass quality by more vigorous grazing and a formal reseeding policy is hoped to overcome particular challenges. Firstly, carrying higher covers into July will help ‘bridge’ a grass growth gap which continues into August.
“We have made progress but we will have to improve infrastructure, such as access to drinking troughs, to make really good progress.
"I plan to use overground pipes and temporary drinkers to ensure those animals not willing to leave the safety of a larger group have access to water when grazing away from a fixed field trough in larger paddocks.”
Secondly, the aim is to extend the grazing on the shoulders of the season. This could reduce home mixed feed needed by weaned cattle which are sold as forward stores in winter through a local livestock market. As with all systems, labour is a consideration.
With no employees, technological innovations which speed up the setting up and taking down of paddock temporary fencing have been welcomed.
“Possibly the greatest aid has been the electric fencing wire spool mounted on the quad bike. This allows me to set both posts and wire as I go along.
“We have also bought an adapter which uses a cordless drill to spool in the wire when the fence is taken down, which saves a lot of time. It cost very little to have fabricated,” he explains.
Simple innovations can greatly improve productivity. And the same is said of information generated as part of the GrassCheck UK study. Graphs and data showing growth versus demand aid the understanding of how the system is working each week.
“For example, in the first week of June demand was 52kg DM/ha/day whereas growth at the time was only 48kg/ha/day.
“We were eating into the cover but this was deliberate, having brought in a mob of ewes and lambs to eat off a cover of about 3,500kg DM/ha which had got ahead of the cattle to recreate the grazing wedge.”
Conserving winter covers for an opening bite in the following spring is aided by over-wintering ewes on turnips ahead of lambing. Crop losses to frit fly and leatherjackets may see other crops, including brassicas, grown in future, balancing intakes with bought-in soya.
Fodder beet is also being considered, he adds.
“We have learned other lessons. For example, reseeding areas in September does not work well if direct drilling. The grass seed does not get going so we may try drilling earlier, possibly, in August.
“We have also been challenged at a recent AHDB Open Day on our choice of grass seed. We use ryegrass predominately and have not included clover due to the sprays needed to tackle docks and thistles. This will change in future as the weed situation improves, moving to perennial rye-grass and white clover.
“The key thing we have learned is you cannot have a fixed plan for the grazing season.
“You have to have flexibility and adapt quickly to changes in climate, grass growth and demand. With little opportunity to take on extra acres, our aim is to produce more but with less inputs.”