Making the most of grass to minimise costs and maximise margins has always been the aim for Graham Parks.
He has successfully adopted a rotational block grazing system which allows him to keep purchased feed costs to a minimum and produce more beef per hectare.
After renting nine blocks of grassland scattered round his small council holding, Pastures Farm, Macclesfield, in April, Mr Parks finally secured the tenancy at Over Bank Farm, an 81-hectare (200-acre) former dairy farm.
He says: “I applied for the tenancy from the council and secured it at a reasonable commercial rent. Now I can check my cattle in under an hour where before I was spending up to four hours travelling round.”
Despite the valuable time savings, taking over the new farm has not been without its difficulties. Weed infestations, poor drainage and an absence of stock-proof fencing were just some of the challenges facing Mr Parks.
“Large areas of the farm were simply ranched and elsewhere the barbed wire fences were adequate if not under pressure, but they were not fit for purpose with my system.”
Embarking on a major fencing project to divide the farm into roughly equal 4ha (10-acre) paddocks with a budget of just £10,000 was the first job for Mr Parks.
“We bought the best quality posts with a 15-year guarantee and put all the fencing up ourselves.
“We used a single strand of 2.5mm high tensile wire between posts nine metres apart. We have created two or three wire gateways for each field and now we will be installing drinking troughs in each field,” he says.
Groups of 80-100 cattle are grazed and moved from paddock to paddock every three to four days.
Mr Parks buys-in beef-sired calves at between two and four weeks old from block calving dairy herds, allowing him to manage cattle in evenly aged groups.
“I buy up to 150 calves in spring and another 60 in autumn. I buy privately if I can as dairy farmers will often want to sell large numbers of calves quickly, so it fits well with our system,” Mr Parks says.
In the past, Mr Parks has bought Aberdeen-Angus cross calves but now he chooses to buy some Shorthorn and Hereford crosses as well so he can sell to a wider market.
“Angus cattle go to Scotbeef for Marks and Spencer or Aldi, the Herefords to Dunbia for Sainsbury’s and the Shorthorns to Morrisons. We sell at between 250-400kg deadweight and the specification is for 90 per cent of animals to be an O+3 or O+4 grade,” Mr Parks explains.
Currently, calves are kept at Pastures Farm where Mr Parks still lives but all calves will be reared at Over Bank Farm in the future.
“Calves are fed milk twice a day for the first five weeks and then they are fed once a day for a further two weeks. Over this period the amount of concentrate they consume more than doubles. We then wean them at the end of the two weeks,” he says.
After weaning, youngstock are fed concentrate for a further four months. The autumn calved block is fed up to 2.5kg of concentrate over winter before they are turned out in March. They are fed some concentrate for an additional month until the grass is growing well.
“Initially calves are set stocked to allow them to settle but they are soon ready to be rotationally grazed. We allow them to eat a fresh paddock first before we put older animals onto it so calves can eat the best quality grass.”
They remain in the same groups until finishing and Mr Parks has historically out-wintered all his cattle.
“I have always grown 12ha of maize and I out-winter cattle on maize stubbles. I think they are healthier this way and it is easier to clean them up before sending the finished cattle away.
“This year I may bring 90 of the largest animals inside as they do the most damage to the ground because I now have the available facilities,” he says.
Over the winter, cattle are fed from a feed trailer containing maize silage and brewers grains with a big bale of haylage placed on top. The cows select what they eat.
In the past, Mr Parks bought most silage in as it has proved cost-effective, using all his land for grazing. This year, with more land available, he is making his own:
“Making my own forage will give me more control over quality and may enable me to reduce the amount of concentrate fed,” he says.
Grazed grass is always Mr Parks’ first priority as it is the cheapest form of feed but by grazing as early in the season as possible, he can have the best of both worlds.
He says: “We aim to turn out cattle into the paddocks by mid-February and we graze everything in spring as this is what grass is here for.”
Despite grazing down to a residual cover of 1,500-1,700kg DM/ha (600-690kg DM/acre), Mr Parks plans to achieve two silage cuts each year from now on.
“This year we were short of grass in May, so I only managed first cut in mid-June. Going forward, I would hope to complete first cut by the end of May and a second cut by mid-July.”
With the fencing complete and the first cut of silage made, Mr Parks is now looking to tackle the remaining weed issues and to soil sample all fields.
“We had to estimate fertiliser applications and apply some 25:5:5 compound fertiliser at a rate of 190kg/ha when we arrived. Soil analysis will enable me to plan fertiliser applications accurately and show how much lime we need to apply.”
Increasing cattle numbers is the medium-term aim, with Mr Parks planning to reach 500 head in two years.
“The more cattle we have, the harder they will graze. This will encourage grass to tiller so we will have more and better quality grass,” he says.
Three new buildings will be built, funded by the landlord. This will enable some cattle to be over-wintered inside and also provide some valuable farmyard manure as animals will be housed on straw.
Mr Parks evidently thrives on hard work but he is adamant about his long-term goal.
“I want to set everything up in the first 18 months of my tenancy. At Over Bank Farm the land is ring-fenced and it is everything I have always worked for. I am looking ahead to an easier lifestyle and more quality time away from the farm,” he says.
Adopting a system of rotational block grazing can help beef producers reduce their feed costs and minimise the time cattle are housed.
ADAS farm consultant Marc Jones says the average suckler beef producer in England makes a loss of £218 per head, before support payments. As such, he says there are three key performance indicators which should be the focus of farmers aiming to achieve more production from grass:
Rotational block grazing leads to better usage of grass, says Mr Jones.
“With set stocking, 40-50 per cent of grass will be used, whereas this figure rises to 80 per cent with rotational grazing. We want the most grass on the farm in September, so it is important to manage grass for growth and quality and build the covers up for winter.”
Mr Jones recommends grass is grazed off when it has 2.5-3 new leaves so energy reserves can be restored but quality is not deteriorating.
Setting up a beef farm ‘like a dairy farm’ with small fenced paddocks is practical he says, but farmers should include and encourage clover in the sward as margins in beef production will not allow for high fertiliser inputs.
“It is important to be flexible. In the event of wet weather, it is vital to move fences or cattle more frequently to avoid damage to swards and soils. Similarly, taking a silage cut if the grass gets away is also beneficial,” he says.