I heard about the programme through my local ANM fieldsman. It came at a good time for us to get involved, as the broader family business had restructured and we were looking to the future.
The programme looked to be a way to get some new thinking to help us decide the best way forward.
We are an unusual farm for our area, in that most of the neighbouring farms are primarily arable, while we are keen to focus on cattle.
While we are more livestock focused, we did not want to compromise the output from the arable side of the business.
Implementing rotational grazing has allowed us to nearly double the herd size to 90 over the past four years, while only adding around 14ac more grassland into the rotation.
Maximising grass output
When you consider that grazed grass costs less than six pence per kilogram of dry matter (kgDM) it is a no brainer to get the most from the land available.
We split two fields into five 5ac paddocks, with half being new grass and the rest a bit older.
We have run up to 40 cows on the 25ac block through the grazing season and we were still able to take extra paddock growth out as silage. In the first year of the programme, we made 15ac of extra silage. The great thing about this is that it has cost us very little to do, as the posts were second hand. We have used a mixture of temporary fencing and more permanent fences for the paddocks, with proper strainers and gates.
We also noticed that the rotational grazing really helped the new grass to tiller out and thicken the sward beneath the cattle’s feet.
One of the other things we looked at early in the programme was soil compaction. Our land is quite heavy and we knew that there were issues with compaction in the swards. Our initial plan had been to purchase a grassland subsoiler to get under the problem and break things up.
However, when we went out and started digging in the fields with the advisers, we found that most of the problems actually lay in the top 10cm.
With that in mind, we purchased a roller aerator and have been using it over the last few years to alleviate damage beneath the surface.
As already mentioned, the soil here at Drumforber is heavy and we have always been careful to cause as little damage as possible throughout the year.
Prior to the programme, we would have all stock housed by mid October and not let them back out until mid May, meaning we had a long and expensive winter. In the spring of 2017, we took the chance in a good spell of weather to get some heifers out in March, six weeks ahead of when we usually would.
They were followed by spring cows and calves in April, leading to a saving in feed and bedding costs of nearly £4,000 across the two groups. But you need to be prepared to take the cows in again if the weather turns.
Since 2017, we have taken every opportunity possible to shorten the time that the cattle spend inside to reduce costs.
In 2019, we managed to get some heifers to fields at the end of February. However, in 2020, the fields looked like a bowling green in early spring. As soon as the soil is over 5.5°C and the weather is right, we put on the fertiliser to get the grass going for the cattle.
The programme supported us in providing projections when we were deciding on expanding the business. We were short of housing for the cattle numbers that we have grown to and the advisers numbers for us showed that we could pay the shed back in a very short space of time.
We have also looked at building a silage pit, but will continue to use the Ag bag, which is working well and at a price of £7/t is quite cost effective.
I would recommend getting involved in the programme, as it gives you a fresh pair of eyes on your farm. We can now go on and continue to build the business.