The decision by a Fife family to introduce a rotational grazing system to their beef and sheep enterprise has boosted their farm’s grass production as well as reducing its fertiliser bill.
Jim Wilson and his son Matthew from Balhelvie Farm near Newburgh, recently hosted a visit by Quality Meat Scotland’s Better Grazing Group so that local farmers could learn more about establishing a rotational grazing system and see a demonstration on electric fencing.
Grazing expert James Daniel was the main speaker at the meeting. He founded his company, Precision Grazing, having been inspired whilst managing a beef station in New Zealand owned by Harry Weir, a pioneer in grazing system design and management.
Mr Daniel’s key message was that managed grazing is easy to adopt. Simply providing a group of animals with eight fields and moving them every three to six days will improve pasture production by 30% (compared to set-stocking).
If fields were too large to be grazed within five to six days with the desired group size then they should be sub-divided into paddocks using semi-permanent electric fencing. This investment in infrastructure will provide a rapid return, often paying back in less than 18 months.
Mr Daniel explained that the first goal of grazing management is to ensure that the animals always have enough pasture, of the correct quality to fulfil their genetic potential for lactation or growth. This can provide a big win, with some of his clients achieving a 50% increase in production per hectare simply by changing their management.
“Farmers should focus on managing their grass using their livestock rather than concentrating on silage making,” he added.
Rotational grazing has become a subject of much discussion in Scotland, driven by the enthusiasm of farmers involved in QMS’s monitor farm and grazing group projects. Many livestock farmers are now trying it out and beginning to reap the benefits of increased output/ha.
Mr Daniel suggested that farmers thinking of trying rotational grazing but unsure how to begin should start on a small area of four to five hectares. This should be divided into eight to 10 paddocks, ideally of equal size, and livestock moved every three to five days. This would provide a great platform to enable them to learn “on the job” developing the confidence to expand to a larger area in the second year.
He said that cattle are easiest to start with as they only need one or two strand fences rather that the three used with sheep. Most of the fencing could be temporary polywire for the first year meaning a set-up cost of as little as £500. He admitted that it will take a season to get a feel for the system but the amount of pasture grown by that area will be far higher than if it was simply set-stocked.
“The key for success is getting the infrastructure right to create a system which works for you. Simple things like providing water to each paddock and ensuring any sub-divisional electric fences are reliably powered using mains or solar saves a lot of labour and makes the management much easier.
Water supply is the main limiting factor to stocking rate and group size, particularly in cattle.
“A 650kg lactating suckler cow will drink around 97 litres a day. If cows are in a large field with only one trough, they tend to travel to water to drink as a herd creating a very high peak demand.
“However smaller paddocks of around two hectares encourage more regular drinking with demand spread over five hours,” he added. He warned “It is important to measure the existing water supply first before choosing group sizes and be prepared to invest if required as water will often be the first limiting factor on summer stocking rate.”
At Balhelvie Farm, the Wilsons run 75 Aberdeen-Angus and Angus cross suckler cows and 200 cross ewes with all progeny being finished on the farm.
They have attended many QMS monitor farm and grazing group meetings in the last few years where they picked up some information on the benefits of rotational grazing, so have been trialling its use on the 65 hectares of grass that they have.
Matthew Wilson said: “We have been splitting paddocks with electric fences for the last two years and have noticeably increased the amount of grass we have grown while reducing fertiliser usage. The challenge has been utilising all the grass at peak growth times.”
Mr Daniel agreed that this can be challenging and suggested that the Wilsons could use a quick 16-20 day rotation in peak growth as well as removing some paddocks earlier for silage cut. If quality has however been lost in early summer he advised that this can recovered by grazing with dry ewes or mowing to a height of 50mm.
“The mower rather than the topper is the tool for the job as it can be set lower providing better quality re-growth,” he recommended.
Discussing electric fencing Mr Daniel explained that this was a psychological barrier, its strength was dependent on an appropriate voltage and correct wire height. “When erecting a fence, posts should be placed as often as necessary to maintain wire height up to a maximum of 18m, when using three wires, or 24m when using one wire,” he said.
“As polywire has a much higher resistance than high tensile steel it should only be used for temporary fences which are being regularly moved,” he added.
To ensure a good voltage he stressed that good earthing was vital. “Galvanised metal posts or similar need to be driven into the ground, ideally in a wet site, allowing one metre in the ground per two to four joules of energiser output.”
He suggested that any farmer needing to install some sub-division should think ahead and invest in an energiser big enough for future plans. “Bear in mind that, although theoretically a one joule energiser output will power 10km of wire, in practise this will be closer to two to four km of wire,” he said.
For further information about the Better Grazing Programme visit www.qmscotland.co.uk/grazing
Pic caption: James Daniel pictured with farmers at the Better Grazing Group meeting at Balhelvie Farm, near Newburgh.