A new grassland management regime is on the cards for a farm in Caithness which is trialling new mixes to find out if the switch will translate into increased returns from its livestock enterprise.
Two new mixes, which will include high-yield red clover, are being used on a reseed at Westfield Farm, recently appointed as a QMS monitor farm, operating with support from Scottish Government and a number of local agricultural sponsors.
The experiment is one of a number of management changes being implemented by John MacKenzie and his step-son, Gary Elder, who run the 220-hectare holding, west of Thurso.
Over 60 farmers attended this month’s second on-farm meeting to update progress and consider new actions. Most of the attention was on how land earmarked for grazing can be improved.
Guest speaker, Michael Shannon, proved plenty food for thought in a presentation and subsequent group visit to fields on the farm. The Irishman is an expert in grassland after working for 23 years as agent and consultant for British Seed Houses.
He now practices what he preaches in his farm in Lanarkshire and runs Scotland’s only beef-finishing system at Thankerton Camp where he has installed portable electric fences which allow him to move cattle daily between paddocks.
His high sugar and clover grass mixes and regular reseeds have resulted in greatly improved weight gains for his cattle. Mr Shannon said it is essential producers settle on a mix which is suited to their regime – whether the grass is for grazing or cropping or a mixture of the two.
He highlighted the potential of red clover, which he said can produce annual yields of 15 tonnes a hectare. Mr Shannon said farmers need to constantly measure the height of the grass to ensure they are making the best use of it. At this time of year, he supports intense grazing to make the use of its most productive period and delay the onset of seed-heads.
“I’d say you should graze everything just now as bare as you can manage it,” he told farmers in Lieurary village hall. Mr Shannon said adjustments in the way grassland is managed can undoubtedly result in increased returns.
“You can, for instance, dramatically increase your liveweight gains by more regular rotations. The productivity of older leys drop every year. I wouldn’t want any leys on my farm older than six years – new grass is definitely the way forward.”
Apart from increased weight gain, he said better quality pasture can also increase the amount of stock a field could support.
Mr MacKenzie, in consultation with the monitor farm community group, has been inspired by Mr Shannon’s advice to review the grassland regime at Westfield.
For the planned reseed of a field in the next couple of weeks, he and Mr Elder have resolved to try out two different seed mixes, which will include red clover.
“We’ll carry out trials and this time next year, we’ll be able to look at the difference and see whether one worked and one didn’t,” he said. The pair have this year, for the first time, stopped producing cereal crops and straw, turning all the land over to grazing.
The farmers are also reviewing their reseeding cycle and their system of moving cattle between fields.
The meeting also focused on ways of reducing the holding’s current long calving period. The drawn-out calving period from the end of February to mid-June puts an obvious strain on the farmers but also causes problems when it comes to marketing.
A start on reducing this period is being made by selecting the bigger and stronger animals among the herd’s 60 replacement heifers to calve this year. The others will be left until next February when they will calve at the same time as the cows.
Mr Elder said that continuing this process over the next three years would lead to all the female stock calving earlier in the year.
He said: “Having the calving over a shorter period makes them easier to handle and easier to market as they are much the same weight.”
Other farmers in the area are very interested in the results as they assess whether their holdings could benefit from similar changes.
The next on-farm meeting is planned for July 14.
Further information on the monitor farm programme, including meeting reports, is available by visiting www.qmscotland.co.uk
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