At a recent programme focus group meeting, the host farmer had recently purchased some land that included around 30 acres of older permanent pasture on the top of a hill. The ground sits at around 600ft above sea level. His question to the farmers attending was: what is the best approach to get the most out of this land in the future?

Currently there is a batch of in-calf heifers being wintered on this ground. Housing facilities on the farm are somewhat limiting at the moment, so the overall plan should include keeping a batch of dry cows or heifers out on this ground, for at least a proportion of the winter.

After a lively debate, the group’s suggestions can be divided into three options. There were some variations on these options but the main themes were common.

Option one

The first suggestion was to use a winter grazing crop such as turnips to rotate around the hill over a number of years. A 6ac to 8ac crop per year, striped-grazed and fed alongside baled silage, would provide adequate winter keep for a batch of dry cows or in-calf heifers.

The following year, the cropped area could be disced and sown out to new productive grass. The soil fertility of the hill needs improving in terms of pH correction, phosphorus and potassium. Growing the turnips gives weeds the opportunity to germinate and should leave a cleaner seed bed for the grass that follows.

For the first few years, the remaining unimproved ground could be used as a lie-back area for the stock.

Another positive of this option is that more and more of the farm will become productive during the main gazing season. Reseeded ground, once soil fertility issues are addressed, will outgrow old permanent pasture significantly.

Being able to winter the in-calf heifers here reduced the wintering costs as it eliminated bedding costs

The downside of this option is that as the years go on and more ground becomes improved, it will unlikely have the same stock-carrying ability that the older grass ley currently has. In an attempt to prevent any damage to the improved sward, this may reduce the available area for wintering and mean a reduced number of animals being out-wintered on the block of ground.

Option two

Another option was to leave the hill area as it is and use the lower-lying ground that surrounds it for growing winter forage crops. This would see the hill area used as a lie-back from the grazing crops as there is plenty of shelter and always a dry lie on the hill.

The lower ground could be incorporated into a greater crop rotation with stubble turnips or a hybrid brassica being sown after a cut of silage in midsummer.

Otherwise a grass ley could be followed with a crop of kale or turnips sown in May, grazed through the winter and sown out to spring barley the following year. This was seen to be a good option for getting muck around the farm over the winter months from the grazing cattle.

Option three

The third option was a much simpler one – do nothing. The hill area is only a small proportion of the total farm. Concentrating on the lower-lying, more productive ground would offer a better return on investment compared to trying to improve higher ground that, even after a lot of work and attention, would still struggle to match the performance of some of the lower fields.

It was felt that the real benefit of the hill was in its stock-carrying capacity during the winter months, thanks mainly to the older denser sward beneath their feet. The hill was described as “the healthiest shed in Aberdeenshire”.

Being able to winter the in-calf heifers here reduced the wintering costs as it eliminated bedding costs. It also allowed heifer’s room to roam about every day grazing parts of the hill and moving from where their silage was to the water trough – keeping the animals fit for calving time.

The heifers start to calve in late-February and so will be housed in mid-January. Another suggestion was to separate out the April-calving cows at scanning time and winter them on the hill. They could remain there until early- to mid-March giving an additional 60 days use out of the 30 acres.

The suggested management of the grass throughout the year was to let it recover post-wintering until early summer, get one or two quick grazings off it with cows and calves and then close it off again in August to allow it to build up a strong cover of grass that could be utilised in the winter as deferred grazing.

Silage made from the lower ground on the farm can be stored close by for feeding to the cattle to supplement the deferred grazing throughout winter.

Sometimes we try to overcomplicate farm systems. While increased production will usually lead to increased profits, in this case the 30 acres used for a couple of grazings in the summer and deferred winter grazing will save the capital cost of another shed for winter accommodation as well as the annual cost of bedding.

How to make best use of 30 acres of dry hill ground?

  • Option 1: A small acreage of winter forage crop each year and reseed afterwards.
  • Option 2: Use hill as lie-back and have forage crops on lower ground.
  • Option 3: Leave hill ground alone, use deferred grazing each winter for holding stock out on.