Orkney farmers learnt how managing their grazing could help improve their bottom line at a free Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) event held in Kirkwall last week.
Over 25 farmers attended the meeting to hear from New Zealand sheep and beef consultant Trevor Cook about making more from their pastures.
Mr Cook specialises in advising farmers on all aspects production from grass-based systems and has been visiting Scotland to talk to farmers about how they can improve their grazing management since QMS first started its first Grazing Groups in 2014.
“The QMS Grazing Group and Better Grazing projects are two the most successful extension programmes I’ve seen anywhere in the world and demonstrate that cattle and sheep producers can increase their businesses profitability by utilising their grazing better,” said Mr Cook.
At the meeting at Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall last week, Mr Cook explained that improving profitability comes from being able to produce more at lower cost. He added that in his experience, Scottish farmers are already productive in terms of per head performance, but there is a key opportunity for livestock producers to reduce their costs even more.
“Managing grazing can allow farmers to spend less, whilst still achieving the same production per head,” he said.
“On a pence/kg of dry matter basis, grazed pastures provide the cheapest feed for ruminants. Making silage from that grass will double the cost per Kg of dry matter and feeding concentrates will be four times the cost of grazed grass on a dry matter basis.”
He went on to explain that to make money from pasture, producers need to grow as much as possible and then aim to utilise at least 80% of what is grown.
“The grazing system producers operate influences how much pasture can be grown. Many pastures are only delivering half of their capability.
“By concentrating the grazing pressure and then giving pastures a rest allowing them to regrow, fast growing productive grass species are favoured.
“This contrasts with continuous grazing where the productive grass species are constantly grazed, and the less productive species are favoured.
“This is the key to growing more grass,” Mr Cook concluded.
He added that utilising the grass grown is also important to making more from pastures. Under continuous grazing, utilisation is likely to be around 50%. Controlling grazing will increase this to 80-85% of the grass grown because less is wasted.
“To grow more grass and achieve higher utilisation, farmers need to be able to concentrate the grazing pressure and then rest the pasture to allow regrowth. This is the basis of rotational grazing,” said Mr Cook.
Production is driven by the number of animals per hectare, as well as per head performance. For those who start rotational grazing, a regular observation is that they don’t have enough stock to keep up with the additional grass they grow.
This was reinforced by Emily Grant, Knowledge Transfer Specialist with QMS who chaired the meeting. She shared with the group figures supplied by farmers in Scotland who have adopted rotational grazing.
“The most common comment we hear is that you will grow more grass. The figures we have are between 25-33% more grass, without a corresponding increase in fertiliser inputs,” she said.
The group then heard that many had increased their stocking rates by 25-30% and that an additional benefit of doing so was that fixed costs were proportionally reduced. Other cost reductions were also reported, with feed costs being reduced by up to 60%.
Mrs Grant was convinced that all farmers could improve their bottom line by adopting some of Mr Cook’s suggestions.
“Changes to grazing management, such as adopting rotational grazing, can provide the opportunity to make improvements to cattle and sheep farmer’s profitability. But perhaps the comment I like best came from one farmer who noted a 100% increase in farming enjoyment as a result of adopting rotational grazing!” she said.
Following the meeting, some of the group visited a nearby field which was being rotationally grazed by Willie Harcus of Quanterness Farm. The field was split equally between red clover, and a plantain, chicory and clover mix which had grazed ewes and lambs until weaning and was now finishing lambs well.