Jamie Leslie has improved both grass and livestock performance on his Shetland farm since adopting better grazing management.
Jamie farms in partnership with his dad, John, at Scholland, Virkie – the most southerly part of Shetland, exposed to strong west and south-west winds and salt spray. They own and rent 230 hectares and contract farm a further 120 hectares nearby.
Jamie describes his land as the opposite to most of Shetland, which is peat and heather. Although there is some peaty soil, the majority of his land is light and sandy, merging with the sand dunes along the coast.
He said: “The biggest problem we have is salt spray from the sea, which burns the grass and can really affect production.”
The farms are stocked with 75 commercial Aberdeen-Angus suckler cows put to the Angus bull, producing female replacements and finished steers for the local butcher.
He added: “The butcher likes a 300 to 320kg carcase; last year we averaged 318kg at 19.1 months old for Angus steers and a few heifers.”
The cattle are fed a store ration during their first winter, to keep costs down, but last year when they were turned out to good quality grass, their liveweight gain was 1.83kg/day from the end of April to mid-June.
Jamie said: “I have seen real benefits in finishing the cattle on a paddock-grazing system. I hosted the Shetland Monitor Farm meeting here in August, where people saw that, in one block, stocking density has increased by 50% and growth rates by 40% from 0.97kg/day to 1.35kg/day, simply by putting some hot wires up.”
The sheep flock comprises 850 Shetland cross Cheviot and Texel cross ewes and 200 followers, most of which are put to the tup as ewe lambs. Jamie explained: “Up until this year we bought in ewe lambs, put them to the Texel and kept the progeny, which then went to Suffolk rams. However, I bought Highlander rams from Innovis to put over the Shetland/Cheviot ewes, and the plan is to keep replacements from them and eventually have the Highlander as my base ewe to avoid buying anything in.”
It was a big decision to move away from Shetland genetics, but the hope is the Highlander will produce a ewe of about the right size, which will scan at the required 170% plus and boost the percentage of lambs reared and sold per ewe, which is the real driver behind the change in genetics.
As chairman of the management group for the Shetland Monitor Farm, Jamie is keen to put into practice as much technology and as many management tips as he can. He has been paddock grazing for a couple of years, and regularly weighs and records his lambs and calves to monitor performance.
Grass quality has increased under rotational grazing. Permanent grass samples taken in September showed rotational paddocks with an ME of 11.3 and crude protein of 20.8, compared to the set-stocked area which had an ME of 10.4 and crude protein of 15.1.
Jamie said: “The performance of the 2017 lamb crop was compromised in paddocks by making them tidy up too much grass, so in 2018 we used a leader–follower system, with ewes and twins leading and suckler cows and calves following. Lamb performance has been good, with that mob of twins averaging 39kg on 25th of August. That entire block of permanent grass paddocks weaned approx 500kg live weight per hectare this year.”
He said: “I pick up ideas from Monitor Farm visits from people such as John Scott, Trevor Cook and Michael Blanche; however, I am a member of various online chat groups involving farmers from as far away as Wales in the UK and even New Zealand. It is a bit weird talking to people on the other side of the world, but it is fascinating seeing what other farmers do to improve.”
Jamie grows about 12 hectares of spring barley and cuts six hectares of undersown spring oats for whole-crop silage. In 2018, for the first time, he sowed three hectares of fodder beet.
He said: “I think it will be a good crop to grow here, as it likes salt and sand, and so far it is looking good. Beet is very expensive to grow, so it needs to yield well. I am aiming for 20 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, and if we can utilise 80%, it will cost us less than 6p/kg of dry matter.”
The plan is to graze 300 to 400 ewes on it from early to mid-pregnancy, which will in turn free up deferred grazing on the links for mature cows. This, he reckons, will allow him to keep cows out until at least the beginning of February, saving money on feeding and also being healthier for the cattle, which start calving on 1st March.
He is also trying a new wintering system for his in-calf heifers, which this year will be strip-grazed on a field of Italian Ryegrass, where he has already set out round bales of undersown wrapped straw, which he said analyses similar to good hay.
There will still be a proportion of ewes on the deferred grazing and fed from a snacker as usual, and Jamie is interested to see how their condition scores compare at scanning to the ewes on fodder beet.
Another experiment that Jamie carried out in 2018, thanks to advice from Trevor Cook, was weaning half the lambs early. The lambs weaned in July and paddock grazed on first- and second-year grass did particularly well. They improved the grass by promoting tillering and the ewes are looking better too, so this is something Jamie will roll out for the whole flock next year.
He said: “By weaning early and grazing well, we have doubled the number of lambs ready to sell in August.”