While it is only mid-February and spring calving is still to get under way for most suckler herds, the programme farmers will be turning an eye to preparations for the upcoming grazing season.
Throughout the programme, getting cattle out to grass early has been a key factor in driving animal performance.
The cost of weight gain from grazed grass is a fraction of that from an indoor silage and concentrate diet. But getting cattle out in March and keeping grass in front of them takes planning.
First off, an early turnout is not about letting every animal out to grass during March or the start of April.
On the programme farms, there will still be some cattle groups that are indoors by late April, usually late-calving cows, autumn cows to be dried off and culls for fattening.
Early grazing requires the farmer to be flexible. A dry March can be followed by a cold and wet April, which will see ground conditions and grass growth struggling to sustain grazing animals.
In such cases, some animals may well require rehousing. Many farmers will see this as unnecessary hassle and, as such, the common view is to leave animals housed until there is sufficient grass available to graze all animals.
However, the programme farms have demonstrated a clear link between early grazing and higher gross margins.
Along with reducing the daily workload, early grazing will see store cattle benefit from compensatory growth.
On the programme farms, weight gains for yearling stores are typically around 1.2kg to 1.5kg/day during a 60- to 80-day period when grazing gets under way in late March.
Cost per kilo of liveweight gain from grazed grass is less than 20p/kg.
In contrast, for the same cattle on an indoor diet of average to good-quality silage, concentrate levels need to be the region of 4kg to 5kg/head to deliver 1kg of daily gain. At current ration prices, gaining 1kg of liveweight will cost in the region of £1.30 to £1.50.
With fine margins in suckler beef production, the more weight gained from grass, the better the prospect of generating a profit margin.
Outlined are some tips to help get cattle out early.
1 Giving priority to replacement heifers
For early turnout to be a success, it should be a slow and gradual approach. Priority should be given to younger, lighter animals, as they have a lower grazing demand and will be easier on ground.
In most cases, the programme farmers tend to give priority to yearling heifers selected as herd replacements.
As these animals have a minimum weight target to meet before going to the bull, early grazing is one of the best methods of increasing weight gain so that animals are well developed when bred.
2 Reducing concentrate feeding
We can plan for most things, but not the weather. So while it is possible to target an approximate time frame for cattle to resume grazing, the weather will have a big bearing on making this a reality.
As such, there is little point cutting concentrates completely from the animal’s diet before they go back to grass.
If concentrates are stopped completely and turnout is delayed for two to three weeks, animals will be behind schedule for weight gain. This is particularly important for replacement heifers with a breeding weight target.
Instead, phase out concentrates from now until animals hit grass. For animals getting 2kg to 3kg/day of ration, cut this by 50% around two weeks before you aim to turn out stock.
Hold at this level until animals hit grass, then stop feeding to allow animals to transition fully to a grass diet.
3 Plan out the first rotation
Before animals go to grass, walk the farm and note how much grass is available and which paddocks will carry cattle.
Use this information to plan out the first grazing rotation. Plan the direction cattle will graze, what paddocks have to be skipped and have drier paddocks available in the event of wet weather.
Ideally, target silage fields first. These paddocks should be cleaned off by early April so that slurry and fertiliser can be applied. Silage fields can then be closed up for first-cut in late May.
4 Start small
Start off with smaller groups of between six and 12 animals going out to grass. Leave these animals to settle and see how grazing is progressing before increasing numbers.
If conditions are holding, add more cattle. Again, increase grazing numbers by turning out one pen of animals at a time.
If weather becomes wet and unsettled, having smaller grazing groups will inflict less ground damage. These animals can be spread over the farm if necessary.
5 Graze hard and fast
If conditions allow, the aim should be to graze heavier covers as quickly as possible, then move animals to the next paddock. Grazing hard and fast will limit sward damage if ground is tender.
Use temporary electric wires to manage swards. Cattle should be grazing covers tight. Daily or 48-hour breaks work well on heavy covers. The temporary wire can be left in place as a back fence, preventing poaching on grazed paddocks. Once grazed, get slurry or chemical fertiliser applied at the first opportunity.