Making a profit with suckler beef is a challenge especially with high input costs and bad weather. Jonathan Blair is tackling these issues by de-risking his business and developing a low input system on land which was previously used for arable crops.
He is growing herbal leys and using mob grazing paddock strategies to produce quality beef from a hardy, resilient native crossbred cow.
Jonathan farms with parents Joe and Alison on 300 acres of north facing land near Ballykelly, Co Derry, overlooking Lough Foyle and Donegal.
The Blair family recently hosted the latest Growing Innovation Network (Grow IN) farm walk, a farmer-led platform sharing knowledge and ideas, with particular focus on soil health and biological farming systems.
Last August, Jonathan sowed out multi-species sward on 50 acres of arable ground once crops had been harvested.
The mix includes perennial ryegrass, red clover, white clover, birds foot trefoil, chicory, plantain, burnet, vetch and remaining oilseed rape from previous plantings. Since then, the crop has grown without artificial or chemical inputs, a trend Jonathan hopes to continue.
While at first glance, the sward appears stemmy, plenty of leaf can be found under the top canopy which provides quality forage for the cattle.
The fields are split lengthwise into four strips with cattle grazing in a cell, approximately 50mx45m with fences being moved daily.
For subsequent grazing, Jonathan plans to alternate wire placement to promote consistent crop regrowth. He also highlighted the opportunity for semi-permanent, mains fencing or agroforestry tunnels along the horizontal dividing lines.
Jonathan believes “farmers are obsessed with growing lush grass,” and argues that a higher stem content in grazing swards is beneficial as it increases the fibre content of cattle diets, assisting digestion.
Also, species such as birds foot trefoil are rich in tannins, providing animal health and anti-parasitic benefits. Jonathan admitted his sward was heavy on clover but, with his cattle facing no issues with bloat so far, this was considered positive.
Building suitable rest periods into the grazing cycle is critical to allowing the multispecies swards to regrow.
Currently, Jonathan is aiming for each 24 hour grazing cell to get an 80 to 90-day rest period on grassland, with cattle moved daily to fresh grass.
As small grazing areas are allocated daily to cattle groups, it gives more time for grazed swards to recover, which Jonathan stated was time for the swards to regenerate and flower.
The ultimate aim is to develop a ‘closed loop’ farming system where nutrients are recycled within each grazing cell with no artificial inputs.
Given the challenges of the wet summer, Jonathan outlined the benefits of long grass swards in protecting the soil and slowing rain damage.
Also, soil compaction has been reduced as drainage is helped by the dense, deep rooting nature of the multi-species swards. Jonathan also mentioned a notable increase in biodiversity of wildlife including butterflies, as a result.
On the areas with permanent pasture, a similar 24 hour grazing approach exists. Jonathan puts cattle into high covers with significant stem content, although there is lush material present at the base of the sward.
The Blairs calved down 91 cows this year, mainly native Aberdeen Angus with Stabiliser and Limousin in the mix. Cattle are grazed in six groups and rotated around the farm.
However, Jonathan has plans to reduce breeding numbers to between 65 and 70 cows as his parents take a step back from the business.
Reducing the cow numbers will also allow more calves to be taken through to slaughter in a grass finishing system without concentrate, adding value to animals.
Prior to the current system, male cattle were finished as bulls under 16 months, but more recently have been sold in the live ring.
The fine margins in operating a suckler herd and the surge in input costs have led Jonathan to de-risk his business by taking out as many purchased inputs as possible.
He believes cattle should work hard by utilising available forage effectively and is factoring this into his decision making when selecting herd replacements.
Converting from grazing cattle on a set stocking system to rotational, or mob grazing, paddocks can be challenging.
Infrastructure needs adapting to ensure cattle are provided with a reliable water supply and good fencing is required.
Jonathan developed his own solution to water provision by building a mobile trough which is serviced by an over-ground pipe connected to stationary drinkers.
The mobile trough can be easily attached to the back of a quad and dragged to the next grazing cell every day.
Jonathan aims to prolong the grazing season for as long as possible and potentially move towards complete out-wintering.
As challenges with building maintenance and improvement can be costly, keeping cattle outdoors for longer will reduce the pressure on housing.
In the meantime, preparations for winter continue and silage remains a feature in his business.
The designated silage fields are the only swards that received artificial fertiliser this year and have evolved into a mix of ryegrass and natural grasses. Hay has also been made this year.
Doing what works for your farm was the key message to take away from the farm walk. The challenges one farm faces will never match the challenges of another.
Jonathan advised that paying close attention to livestock is essential when making changes to a suckler system, stating “How your cattle behave and perform will tell you if the system is working”.