The Better Grazing = Better Business conference in Perth, organised by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), looked at how managing grazing can help improve the bottom line for sheep and beef producers. Ewan Pate reports.
The accepted wisdom is New Zealand is far ahead of the UK when it comes to making profit from grassland but this may not be entirely correct.
Trevor Cook, a North Island vet, farmer and grassland guru told delegates he had seen a greater rate of change in the UK than he had in his home country in the last three years.
During the last 36 months he has been involved with the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Better Grazing = Better Business programme.
He said: “Farmers here and in New Zealand have failed abysmally at increasing the value of their products, so this leaves them looking hard at their level and cost of production.”
QMS chairman Jim McLaren had already warned big changes were coming in terms of Brexit and trade, neither of which were in producers’ control. Production costs, however, were controllable in an individual business and efficient grassland usage was a key component.
Mr Cook controversially suggested 90 per cent beef and lamb production was the outcome of management and only 10 per cent was the outcome of genetics. Growth potential was determined by genetics but it was health status and nutrition which allowed this potential to be expressed.
He said animal health status was high in Scotland but there was work to be done on pasture usage. Farmers had to look not only at the yield of grass but how well it was used.
The practical maximum usage was about 85 per cent, allowing for trampling and other wastage. In Mr Cook’s view, this could only be achieved by rotational or paddock grazing, which he described as ‘an incredibly powerful tool’. It had allowed grass species to grow to their maximum with only judicious applications of nitrogen fertiliser to fill the gaps in the season.
The Better Grazing = Better Business programme came along at just the right time for Galashiels farmer Jim Logan. He had already started to implement a radical policy reform at Pirntaton, his family’s 635-hectare (1,570-acre) farm in the heart of the Scottish borders, but participation in the programme gave him the encouragement and technical support to see it through.
Speaking at the conference, he said he decided to make the unit more commercial and focus on reducing cost of production while simultaneously increasing output per acre. His family were in the top echelons of the pedigree livestock world and had just sold the Aberdeen-Angus bull Galawater Bentley at Stirling for 26,000gns and collected the Blackface champion and reserve champion tickets at the 2010 Royal Highland Show.
Mr Logan said: “The system worked, especially with a little Single Farm Payment, and it would still work but our commercial farming was getting dragged into a high cost system with too much spent on machinery, feed and pedigree stock.”
He felt it was time to develop a profitable, sustainable system which would not rely on subsidies or the sale of high value pedigree stock. The new system was to be built on maximising pasture growth and using rotational grazing as a means to feed functional, productive livestock. He would also use knowledge transfer and benchmarking to best advantage, hence the involvement with Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).
The changes were to be concentrated on the lower ground which is stocked with 105 suckler cows and about 1,300 Mule and Texel cross ewes. All progeny are finished on-farm.
Mr Logan said: “I decided early on I wanted to increase grass production by 30 per cent and increase the usage from 50-80 per cent. The only way to do this was rotational grazing. My big motivation was the cost of feed. Grazed grass costs 2.5p-4p per kg which is about a tenth of the cost of bought-in compound feed.” This is important on a farm with no home-grown cereals.
The process of subdividing large fields into paddocks began using trial and error to find the best layout for the electric fencing and water troughs. Six years on, the farm is divided into 130 paddocks. Mr Logan also invested in GPS mapping tools and grass growth monitoring computer programmes.
The results are impressive. The low ground ewe flock is fed entirely on grazed grass almost all year. The exception is the 20 ‘golden’ days around tupping when feed is not restricted and up to 70 days pre-lambing when high quality silage is fed. For the last 35 days, ewes carrying multiples are back on unrestricted grazing, supplemented with silage and high quality protein.
Ewes are set-stocked at seven or eight per hectare (about three per acre) during lambing in late April but, apart from this, carefully managed paddock grazing is the rule, often with shifts every 24 or 36 hours.
“People say I must spend all my time shifting sheep but they get used to it and it actually takes little time,” said Mr Logan.
Concentrate use over the whole farm, cattle included, has dropped from 380 tonnes in 2011/12 to 94 tonnes in 2015/16. On the low ground sheep enterprise, this is an annual feed cost of £1.12 per head, compared to a QMS average of £14.43. Performance has not been compromised, with lambs gaining 215g per day last year.
The next step at Pirntaton involves increasing ewe numbers and grazing more cattle, with output targeted at 520kg/ha (210kg/acre) liveweight by next year. It is already at 381kg/ha (154kg/acre) liveweight under the new system.
“It is a case of more fences equalling more stock it seems. Results are pleasing so far and there is an exciting future as long as the costs of production are kept under control,” said Mr Logan.
There are five golden rules to be observed when it comes to managing rotational paddock grazing systems, according to Andre van Barneveld of Irish company Graise Consultancy
“Monitoring every aspect of these five golden rules is everything and, if done properly, production can be high with the only capital expense being some electric fence reels and enough water troughs to serve every paddock,” said Mr van Barnevald.
Rotational grazing allows for maximum usage rates of about 85 per cent, says New Zealand vet Trevor Cook.