Farm Profit Programme farmer Andrew Gammie aims to get cattle out early on his farm to shorten expensive housing and utilise quality early grass growth. Andrew runs an arable and cattle farm south of Aberdeen at Laurencekirk.

The first cattle out the door are his heifers which last year hit the grass at the end of February.

“This year, I haven’t got any cattle out yet,” said Andrew. “I was round it today and it was like a bowling green but recent temperatures mean it is changing so I am planning getting the heifers out within the next week.”

Last year, there were 25 heifers on a 15-acre field to begin with before moving them on to 60 acres of grass.

Following the heifers will be the cows, later in spring. Calving has started already, with the first cows and calves earmarked for the field in April.

Andrew explained: “Last year, we had to take cattle in after putting them out. You have to be prepared and have the option to take them in if you go for an early turnout.”

Getting the grass going

Andrew managed to get his fertiliser on in February last year, while this year’s application was completed in the first week of March.

“This year with the recent wet spells we put the fertiliser on when we got a weather window,” said Andrew. “As soon as it is over 5.5°C and weather is right, we go for it.”

The fields get a 22:4:14 multi-cut fertiliser plus sulphur to get the grass growing. The fields are all regularly soil-tested with a pH of around 6.5 on the heavy clay soil. This makes a big difference to the performance of the grass throughout the year especially in the critical early stages of the season.

When deciding when it is ready for cattle to hit the fields, Andrew likes to have a few inches of grass. He said: “You know by looking at it and see it growing, moving in the sunlight, you can see the growth.”

Andrew also uses an Alstrong Aerator once or twice a year on the fields. He first goes on as soon to turn out as possible and likes to use it again on the silage ground after the first cut.

No feeding in the field

Due to the high feed values in early grass, Andrew does not feed his heifers silage or barley in the field but they do get minerals in tubs. He believes you have to trust the growing grass to feed them.

Plus because the fields are all set out in paddocks for rotational grazing, the stock can be quickly cycled around, allowing fresh grass for the stock. Or if it gets wet or growth halts, the gates can be opened and the cattle can roam over a much larger area.

Sheep v cows

The farm winters some sheep which arrive in November but they left by the end of the first week in January this year. To maximise the chances of getting the heifers out quickly, Andrew keeps one field free from any sheep at all. He is keen to keep the sheep tighter next year and even feed them to free up more fields for cattle in spring.

Summer rotation

To maximise the output of the farm Andrew has implemented a rotational grazing system for his cattle. He has divided his farm into blocks for each bulling ground of around 30 cows plus calves or 20 cows and calves plus 10 to 15 bulling heifers. The cattle are usually rotated on a Friday and a Monday but it is very dependent on the growing season.

The fields will get their second fertiliser application in six weeks when silage is made at the end of May. The silage fields get the multi-cut fertiliser, with the grass fields getting 34.5% nitram.

Grass getting away

“Most years the grass has gotten away from us in one way or another,” said Andrew. While he doesn’t depend on making silage within his rotational system each year, he has managed to make some.

“At the time of the first-cut silage we need to make a decision if we are going to close up a paddock for silage,” he said. In the three years since we started, we made around 15 acres of silage in the first year, very little was made in the drought of year two but last year we took out 10 acres for silage. Last year, Andrew yielded around 10 bales an acre on his rotational grass he took out.

Buying £5/bale v making £18/bale

Silage is made at the end of May when previously it was cut around the middle of June. A contractor is used for all jobs at silage with the grass going into bales as Andrew doesn’t have a silage pit at the moment. He likes to be in control of his first-cut quality silage and make it on the farm. However, second cut this year is up in the air for Andrew. The low price of fodder is tempting him to buy in his cow silage for next winter. Currently bales on the market are being sold for £5/bale, while it costs him around £18/bale to make.

Buying in silage for cows doesn’t have to be rocket fuel but reasonable quality is still important. Bales sitting for two years without double wrap could have a higher microbe spoilage with potential of mycotoxins.