Increased production from grassland was one of the main topics discussed at the recent Peebles monitor farm meeting.
The Peebles monitor farmers, Ed and Kate Rowell farm the 1,800 acre (729 ha) Hundleshope which is one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland.
The majority of the farm, 1,450 acres, is classified as hill. The Rowells are keen to lift the productivity of the grazing on the lower ground which supports their 70 cow suckler herd, with progeny sold as yearlings, plus a lowland flock of 450 Scotch Mules, with all lambs other than replacements, finished.
In search of experience-based, practical information, the Rowells and members of the Peebles monitor farm community group headed west to Doug and Lorna Greenshields who farm a total of 1,700 acres (688 ha) based at South Mains, near Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire.
The Greenshields were QMS grassland development farmers from 2009 to 2011 with rotational grazing of their home-bred store cattle a focal discussion topic.
The Greenshields run a total of 207 Stabiliser breeding females, with progeny, other than replacement heifers, sold as forward stores at 15-16 months old, plus a breeding flock totalling 1,500 ewes – 700 Scottish Blackface and 800 Scotch Mules.
“Grass is the only thing we can grow here,” said Doug Greenshields. “If we feed anything else to our stock we have to buy it in, so we aim to produce as many kilos of meat as we can from our grass.”
Over a decade ago the Greenshields laid the foundations to change from using Charolais bulls over Aberdeen-Angus and Limousin cross cows – the last Charolais bull left in 2006 - to building a herd of Stabilisers, a breed developed in America from a blend of Red Aberdeen-Angus, Hereford, Gelbvieh and Simmental.
“This breed, which is 50% native British beef genetics, is designed to thrive and flesh easily on grass,” explained Mr Greenshields. “They don’t have the shape of the Continentals and when we sold our Stabiliser steers at auction at around ten months of age, we were really disappointed with the prices!
“It was obvious that we needed to keep the sale cattle for longer, increase their size and weight and sell them in the autumn when buyers could see their finishing potential. But if we fed them concentrates at grass, they would quickly go fat. The answer was to exploit their natural ability to thrive on grass and maximise growth and weight gain from grazing alone, which led us to start rotational grazing about five years ago.”
Now annually rotationally grazing approximately 150 cattle, which average a daily liveweight gain of 1kg for 5 – 5 ½ months from April to September, the Greenshields put a total of more than 23,000kgs of weight onto their growing cattle from grass alone.
“The average weight gain for set-stocked cattle in Scotland is 0.6 to 0.7 of a kilo per day,” remarked Lorna Greenshields. “Our rotationally grazed cattle are averaging one kilo per day, giving us an extra 7,000 kilos of beef each year from the same area of grazing.”
Fields to be rotationally grazed are shut off in early January after being grazed hard by in-lamb ewes prior to housing.
The cattle which are to be rotationally grazed are split into three groups of approximately 50 head each – larger bullocks, smaller bullocks and heifers for sale. With the aim of preventing them growing on into over-big suckler cows later in life, replacement heifers are turned to the hill which peaks at 900 feet. Cattle generally come out of the sheds in April depending on ground conditions.
“We don’t look for a big weight gain from the cattle through the winter,” explained Doug Greenshields. “We aim for about 0.6kg per day on a diet of mainly silage with approximately 2.5kgs of concentrate which is gradually reduced to zero a couple weeks prior to turn out to prepare their rumen for a 100% forage diet. When feeding the concentrates, Lorna calls the cattle which teaches them to associate Lorna’s call with good food - an investment for the future when they’re rotationally grazing.”
The Greenshields maintain that regular soil testing to ensure correct pH, phosphorus and potassium levels is an essential foundation of good grass growth.
The cattle are rotationally grazed over a total of 120 acres, with a third of this area shut up for silage in mid-May, coming back into the grazing rotation in July. Water tanks are located to ensure each grazing block is supplied.
“This has obviously cost money, but we’ve established that good quality water is very important to the performance of the cattle,” commented Doug Greenshields. “In the past, some cattle drank from natural water courses and they were the worst performers.”
The mobs of approximately 50 head each graze seven, flexible-sized blocks which are divided into either 3 to 3.5 acres or 4 to 5.5 acres with mains powered, electrified tape. The smaller blocks are marked with white posts at each side boundary, with the larger blocks marked with red posts. When grass growth is at its peak, the smaller blocks are generally grazed with the larger blocks utilised more as grass growth slows towards the end of summer.
“Although, if the ground is wet as we head towards autumn, it’s better to keep the cattle on the smaller blocks, to limit the area which is poached,” warned Doug Greenshields.
If all goes to plan the cattle are moved every three days returning to the first block on Day 22.
“Thanks to teaching them to associate my call with good food, they’re easy to move,” commented Lorna Greenshields. “All I need to do is drop the electric tape and call them and they know that means a new supply of tasty, fresh, young grass.”
Doug Greenshields reminded the group that a Ryegrass plant grows three leaves and as the fourth leaf emerges, so the first one dies. “To get the most from our grass, we want the stock to graze the grass down in its first three leaf stage. The re-growth shoots appear three days after the plant has been grazed. If the cattle eat the re-growth they really punish the plant which is why it’s best to shift them at least every three days.”
Doug Greenshields explained to the group that developing confidence in understanding grass growth, calculation of the amount of dry matter in the grazing and regularly assessing the “wedge” to gauge the amount of grass ahead of the cattle, is fundamental to successful rotational grazing.
“During the peak growth periods, once leaf area has developed on the grass plants this increases photosynthesis and the grass really takes off,” he added. “We’ve learnt the importance of monitoring grass growth closely, to go with our gut feeling, trust our instincts, be flexible and not too rigid. If there’s a build-up of too much grass ahead of the cattle there’s always the option of shutting off one or more blocks for silage.
“Alternatively, if we run short of grazing, we have insurance in the fields which have been shut off for silage.”
The next Peebles monitor farm meeting will be an open day and BBQ on Wednesday 27 August at 2pm. The Peebles monitor farm is half way through its three-year term and the developments over the last 18 months will be reviewed.
For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, please visit: www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms