Probing the Practicalities of Paddock Grazing

A Perthshire farmer is letting the experts in on his paddock grazing system, hoping to improve knowledge on grass productivity.
calendar icon 4 November 2014
clock icon 4 minute read
Quality Meat Scotland

Objectively, the Grazing Group, run by Quality Meat Scotland, wants to maximise kilograms of meat from grass per hectare. 

"We are currently moving the group every 48 hours and I find this to be an easy and pleasant task." Alex Brewster

Members have committed to meet 12 times over the next three years to work towards achieving this on their own farms.

At the initial meeting spreadsheets were provided for everyone to produce their benchmark figures and some members have now started to calculate their own performance in terms of the following: kilograms of live weight meat produced per hectare; kilograms of nitrogen used to produce a kilogram of live weight; and kilograms of feed used to produce a kilogram of live weight.

“When producing spring barley, farmers always calculate yield per hectare - we’ve tried to make it easier to do the same for livestock production,” said Michael Blanche, QMS Knowledge Transfer Specialist and meeting facilitator.

Alex Brewster, in partnership with his parents Alastair and Morag, runs 3200 hectares of upland and hill. Rotmell is 1000ha and farmed on a tenancy from Atholl Estates; the remainder is managed through land management contract and seasonal lets.

A herd of 120 suckler cows and a performance recorded flock of 1900 predominately Blackface ewes are currently stocked and the business is growing with stock numbers looking set to rise over the next few years.

Mr Brewster is an early adopter of paddock grazing and 18 months ago began to develop a system. “We started with the summer calving herd.

"Our stock have adapted very well to the new system."

"They calved on an area of rough grazing as usual but as soon as a batch of 25 cows and calves were ready, we moved them into a lane grazing system with front and back wires.

“This has taught us a great deal about managing residuals (the grass that remains after the stock has moved). A retaining electric wire is all that’s required to maintain the group and we have installed a flexible water trough system that is moved to each new paddock with the cows and calves,” said Mr Brewster.

“We are currently moving the group every 48 hours and I find this to be an easy and pleasant task. The cows are pleased to see us and walk quietly into the next paddock eager to graze on the lush grass and clover that is ahead of them.

"It’s a perfect way to check the herd and keep an eye out for any health or welfare problems at the same time.”

This summer Mr Brewster also trialled a group of lambs on the system and, despite a few teething problems which are now rectified, he’s confident paddock grazing is the way to increase performance from his flock.

“Our stock have adapted very well to the new system. I find it gives us much more control of the pasture and the grass growth I have seen already is truly amazing.

“We forecast a five-figure reduction in the cost of fertiliser, which means we are lowering the costs of production considerably. Next year we plan to invest this saving on more electric fencing and water troughs to develop this further.”

Explaining the practicalities to the group was John Bailey of PasturSens. Earlier in the year Mr Bailey addressed the QMS Grazing for Growth conference and has spoken at most of the Scottish grazing groups, sharing his huge depth of practical knowledge in grazing management.

He reminded the group that a very natural way for ruminants to graze is in a mob, eating the best of the grass before moving on. However when you begin using this on your own farm, it does require careful consideration and planning.

Mr Bailey explained that management of the residuals is the way to produce optimum results. Taking stock into the paddock when there is 3000kg of DM per hectare available and removing stock when this has reduced to 1500kg of DM left is ideal.

Keeping within this zone will normally be achieved between 24 and 72 hours of grazing and farmers can learn to recognise the grass available in their own fields once they start using the system. He warned that overgrazing is a risk.

If the grass is deprived of sunlight due to removal of too many leaves, root activity will also be affected and regrowth will be diminished.

Undergrazing (leaving too much residual growth) will also result in rank areas and under performance. For farmers wishing to start paddock grazing in spring 2015, he advised drawing up a plan now that will be used to optimise the period of maximum grass growth during next spring and summer.

“The newly formed Grazing Groups represent professional and dynamic farmers whose enthusiasm for change really inspires me,” said Mr Bailey.

“In Scotland I have met many focussed livestock managers who are eager to embrace a more technical approach to grazing.

“I would not be surprised if, by 2017, members of these groups are able to produce livestock performance from their grassland comparable with the top third of New Zealand farmers.”

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