Ballykelly suckler beef farmer Jonathan Blair is continuing to cut out inputs from his farming system.

At a farm walk last week, Jonathan explained that he hasn’t used fertiliser at all in three years and it is four years since he last applied fertiliser to grazing ground.

Concentrate feed has been gradually cut back and no meal is now being fed to any livestock group on the farm.

Wormers are the next input on the hit list, with Jonathan stating that the current dosing regime on the farm is “the bare minimum”.

Some cattle were dosed for fluke in February, although this was only targeted at animals that seemed to be not doing well.

“We are trying to get to a place where there are no chemicals in the system. I am confident we can get there,” Jonathan said.

The 300-acre farm has a mixture of land types, ranging from arable grade ground to marginal parkland.

Livestock numbers have reduced as the farm has moved towards a low input, regenerative model of production.

A total of 69 cows calved on the farm this spring, down from a peak of 95 cows a few years ago. There are two stock bulls on the farm, a Stabiliser and an Angus.

Jonathan said he is aiming for cows that are 550-580kg liveweight, are easy fleshed, can produce milk off rougher forage, and go back in calf quickly. “We want cows that fit the system, rather than making the system fit the cow,” he said.

All cattle are finished on the farm, with the most recent sale being a batch of 10 heifers that were slaughtered in late June. The heifers were 26 months old and had an average carcase weight of 260kg.

“It is light by conventional standards but when you take the fact there was no fertiliser, meal or wormer and very little labour, then that figure changes round quite a bit,” Jonathan said.

A total of 69 cows calved on the Blair farm this spring. \ Houston Green

High density grazing

The approach taken to grazing on the Blair farm is arguably the biggest change that has been implemented in recent years.

“We graze cattle in very high-density groups for very short periods of time. We then leave that patch of ground alone for anywhere from 45 to 100 days, sometimes even more,” Jonathan explained.

“The idea behind that is the grass has time to fully recover and goes beyond the stage that traditionally tells you there is quality in the sward.”

“You are breaking the parasite cycle and are letting more carbon into the soil profile which feeds the soil biology,” he maintained.

Visitors to the farm were shown a batch of 70 young cattle that were electric fenced into an area around 60m by 40m. The cattle are moved to a new “cell” daily, and a portable water trough is dragged along the ground with a quad.

The area that the cattle were on hadn’t been grazed this year at all. The grass in the sward had seed heads and there were docks and buttercups present too.

This doesn’t bother Jonathan, as he wants cattle eating a mixture of plants that naturally grow in the soil. In fact, he is clear that he doesn’t want his cattle eating short, lush grass or passing loose, watery dung.

“The natural seed bank in your soil is more useful than anything someone will sell you in a bag,” he said.

“Fibre is important in the diet because the rumen is an engine. If it is constantly emptied, then it isn’t working properly. You need to let ruminants ruminate,” he added.

Jonathan said this group of animals, which were mainly spring 2023-born heifers and steers, will have lower liveweight gain on average than a conventional grazing system.

However, he argues that his cattle are healthier as they need less treatments with wormers and, even with the daily moves, the labour requirement with his system is lower.

“It is about taking risk out of the system. There has been poor growth this summer, but we still have a big wedge of grass ahead of us. If I had baled surplus grass a few weeks ago, then I would be short now,” he said.

Host farmer Jonathan Blair speaking at the Nature Friendly Farming Network event. \ Houston Green

Cows and calves cell-grazing on parkland<.section>

A large group of 63 cows with young calves were grazing a small area of heavier land at the other end of the farm.

In this part of the farm, there are a lot more rushes present and the area that the cows were in had not been grazed during 2024 until now.

With the farm moving away from chemical interventions, there is no plan to spray or weed-wipe the rushes in these fields. Instead, it will be topped later in the summer, ground conditions permitting.

“The natural pH of this soil is probably low to mid fives. There is little point, in my mind, throwing a lot of money into this type of ground,” Jonathan said.

The long-term plan is to have agro forestry on some of this land, with rows of trees to be planted in the next few years. Grazing paddocks will then be set up between the tree lines. Jonathan maintained that trees will provide shelter for livestock, help open up the soil structure, and help nutrient cycling in the soil.

Breeding and weaning

The two stock bulls are to be introduced to the main group of cows this week, so calving will commence in mid-April.

The approach to weaning calves has changed in recent years too, with calves taken away from cows two months later than usual. It stems from less wormers being used on the farm, as a stressful weaning could quickly lead to a bad outbreak of lungworm and pneumonia.

This happened on the Blair farm two years ago when calves were weaned at six months of age, and Jonathan thinks that a later weaning is a key way to manage stress levels in calves.

“By nine or ten months the cows don’t have much milk and you see the calves naturally hanging back from them anyway,” Jonathan explained.

“We don’t want to leave it too late though because it can affect colostrum quality for the next calf,” he added.

A home-made portable water trough is moved along with the cattle each day. \ Houston Green

Shortening the winter with ‘bale grazing’

Over 600 round bales of hay were made on the Blair farm in June which will form the main fodder stock over the winter. The plan for November through to January is to use “bale grazing” to help extend the grazing season for some groups of cattle.

“We will set bales out in fields that have been well rested for five or six months. They will be allocated small cells so one bale will feed them each day plus whatever grass has grown,” Jonathan explained.

“Hay is a great feed for bale grazing. It is bulky and high in dry matter. It should leave the cattle full, so they don’t walk around looking for more to eat,” he maintained.