Buy more land, goes the old expression, they aren’t making any more of it. It might be true, but it’s hardly helpful advice when property is at a premium. Thankfully, you can make more from the land you already farm, with the right grazing system.
Rotational grazing is an excellent tool for expanding flock or herd size through better grassland management. The practice involves smaller field sizes combined with frequent stock movements. Animals intensively graze a paddock at its most nutritious, then it’s left to rejuvenate for the next grazing. Research suggests you can grow around 20% more grass using the system.
We spoke to James Drummond of Lemmington Hill Head at Edlingham, in Northumberland, about the practice. He runs around 1750 sheep on his 220-hectare property, and is in the process of increasing cattle numbers – he currently has 60 suckler cows and 20 bulling heifers.
What benefits have you seen from rotational grazing?
I’m running double the stock number of both sheep and cattle than I was before rotational grazing, on the same area, with less additional feed and I have a lot more grass in the winter and spring.
Individual animal performance has also improved, resulting in a massive increase in output per hectare and a cheaper cost of production, improving profitability. This is partially down to genetics but also due to improved utilisation and management of pasture.
What did you have to overcome to change your grazing system?
Water infrastructure was one of the main obstacles – initially, there was a lot of running around with IBC tanks attached to drinkers. Now I’m laying a lot more permanent and temporary water systems. In permanent pasture fields that I was constantly splitting year on year, I have mole ploughed in water pipes with fixed troughs.
Fields going into herbal legume-based leys as part of my crop rotation for winter grazing are being split into cells with electric fencing, with water pipes run over the surface, below the electric lines. These fields may be split up for five years before going back into winter grazing, with the water pipes remaining in place for that time.
Hi Will, you asked about water infrastructure earlier. Grabbed a quick vid in one of the blocks tonight, 4 troughs doing 8 paddocks with the pipe running down the central fence line. 1.25ha paddocks only small drinker but stock never far away so don’t really crowd them pic.twitter.com/zlh0c8POIt— James Drummond (@JamesADrummond) May 20, 2020
Are there any ongoing challenges farmers should be aware of?
You have to keep your pasture in a vegetative state, especially for lambs, if you want to maximise performance. Extreme entry covers have their place, especially in cattle systems and when trying to build soil organic matter on arable land, but for finishing lambs, quality helps drive performance. Also, don’t take residuals down too low or daily liveweight gain will be compromised.
If you want to set a nice even residual whilst also pushing liveweight gains in young animals, I would suggest looking to set up a leader-follower system. Priority animals get the pick of the grazing and the following mob coming in behind to set the target residual and ensure quality for the next round.
Has anything surprised you about the transition to the new system?
The resilience of the system, and also my budgeting of the grazing available has certainly improved. It’s a lot easier to see what feed you have in front of you and be able to control your pasture supply and stock demand.
Knowing how and what you have to graze helps make informed decisions, and at a high stocking rate things can be adjusted to try to mitigate issues thrown up.
How does AgriWebb help you manage rotational grazing?
Agriwebb is used for the grazing and medicine records of all animals on farm, and spray and fertiliser applications. Inputs, including their cost, are put onto the app before being allocated to a field or group of animals. Not only will we have a record for cross-compliance but costings for each field or crop and also per animal.
We input entry and exit covers into the grazing record, plus covers from regular farm walks. The intuitive app-based approach and its real-time features make inputting records quick and simple. Although it is still early days for me using the app, I hope to get a lot of interesting data and costings from it, along with ticking all the boxes for record keeping.
I also use the GPS function on the map, to set electric fencing up and when I’ve set up permanent fencing and water infrastructure. I have set where I want the fence line or water trough on the app before entering the field and used the GPS to ensure I’m in the right place.
Do you have any advice for farmers considering rotational grazing?
You don’t have to go all out straight away, with small cells and daily shifts. It may mean splitting a field up with some electric fence when you would normally just throw some animals in there. Or maybe you have a few smaller fields where you could run a bigger group than usual and shift them around these fields.
I like eight paddocks on three-day shifts at this time of year as it gives a good rest period to build up covers and as grass hits peak production it often means paddocks can also be taken out as silage.
Just try it and see what works for you. The land has already been paid for – why not try to get a bit more out of it?