The decision to come back to the family farm was an easy one for Neil Davies, sheep and beef farmer from Llangammach Wells, “because once you sell the farm you will never get it back”, and he didn’t want that that happen. A partial return 15 years ago, whilst still working as a carpenter, saw long days and so 12 years ago the decision was made to farm full time.
Neil was very busy following the same system as his grandparents; 50 Belgium Blue x Lim suckler cows and 2000 ewes, kept on the Epynt, lambing at home and taking lambs through to finish.
Having moved to live on the farm 4 years ago, Neil and his wife Sian started to think about making changes to the traditional system. Lack of labour was a key driver for them to seek to build efficiency and ease of management into the system. Traditionally lambing and calving took place at the same time however too much time was being spent with the cows mean lambing performance suffered.
Hiring out his shed to Farming Connect for an on-farm event was the catalyst of change. Neil is a keen participant in farm walks and discussions groups and was interested in becoming a Farming Connect demonstration farm; with emphasis on making the most from grass, slurry and re-seeding trials. This was also an excellent opportunity to take the advice and guidance from Precision Grazing to improve their farming system.
One of the most important things for me is to see with my own eyes how someone else is doing it, and to learn from their mistakes and triumphs.
Neil had been following a 5-year re-seeding regime and had improved his swards with a ryegrass, clover mix, but felt the grass was not being utilised properly. This is where working with Sarah from Precision Grazing offered an opportunity to step back from the day to day work, review objectives and implement a system that put pasture first.
Sarah Morgan says “The first step to change was aligning the enterprises on farm to match the pasture growth curve as closely as possible, maximising the amount of grazed grass utilised. This involved using farm management software FARMAX to produce a number of scenarios and analyse which would suit the farm going forward best, in terms of production, profitability and sustainability. To utilise the pasture and reduce the peak work load the suckler herd was dispersed, and a dairy beef system was set-up with 150 Angus X dairy calves arriving weaned in the spring and being taken through to finish at 20-22 months.”
Once a plan for the type of livestock enterprises was in place, Sarah then assessed the existing fields and infrastructure to design a low cost but effective paddock system ensuring paddock sizes were as even as possible with a plan for access water.
We had quite a few small fields already, so we’ve kept them the same but split the bigger ones into paddocks, especially the 18 acre fields!
The previous system saw fields being set stocked, with sheep grazing for 2 weeks before being moved on, the sheep were selective and grass went to seed. Turning to a rotational grazing system sees the grass being grazed quickly and evenly, allowing the plants to then recover before being re-grazed again once they have fully replenished leaf and root reserves. This has seen the quality and yields of the pastures improve and allowed the percentage of clover in swards to increase.
Another advantage of the regular move is less poaching, the cattle aren’t standing around field corners and gateways, and on the wetter days the cattle are moved every 12 hours. The system offers flexibility and is adapted to weather and time constraints.
It’s easy to work out the grass demand and therefore area required for grazing each day for 150 cattle on farm for 12 months, it’s been more complicated with the sheep, but having Precision Grazing at the end of the phone has been a great help in making it work.
Precision Grazing came in and looked at the whole farm, from the hill down to the farm ground. One of the main changes was to reduce the number of livestock groups on the farm and ‘mob up’ existing livestock into larger groups allowing for reduced labour and more effective grazing pressure.
We still set stock at lambing, but when they are about 5 weeks old we bunch them up into bigger groups and start them rotating. This has eased management and allowed us to reduce the need for so much subdivision. Initially I was worried about stock performance in larger groups, but they have exceeded expectations.
Cattle growth rates are monitored throughout the grazing season, aiding decision making and provide confidence that the cattle are performing. This year they averaged 0.9kg Liveweight per day on pasture alone which Neil was very pleased with considering the dry summer. The focus has moved away from sale price per head to margin per head and per ha.
Multi-Cut silage is fed when they are housed along with a whole crop forage, minimal blend is mixed in as they move away from feeding concentrates. They are then turned out to grass the following spring or sold when they reach their ideal store weight of 500kg.
I’m pleased with the cattle they’ve averaged 0.9DLG over the summer, we made some lovely silage so I hope this will push them over the winter. I was worried going from 50 sucklers to a 150 Angus X but they really fit well alongside the sheep and there is a lot less labour involved.
The paddock system is set up each year in January, using the Rappa fence system, to ensure it is ready to go from April onwards. Most of the fields are split into 2ha paddocks, fencing is easily removed when the silage fields are closed, or as like this year, a field of turnips have been planted. 3 strands of wire are used to ensure that flexibility for cattle and sheep to graze the system.
Water was the biggest problem for Neil, however working with Precision Grazing and mapping out the paddocks and trough locations has made this doable. Previously mains fed water troughs were in the field corners so these were moved and now service multiple paddocks.
Using permanent troughs, although a greater investment, keeps the system simple, which is a must for us when we are busy during lambing, we know everything for the cattle is set up and ready to go.
Having Precision Grazing come in and look at the whole farm made Neil look at the farm differently, instead of seeing fields that were ‘just’ for calving cows, or some ‘old pasture’ just for a few ewes, every field is now part of the farm and not looked at in isolation, it has become a whole and the positive changes in those fields are already noticeable from using the paddock grazing system.
The farms PH levels have improved since using this system, from averaging low 5s, most of the fields are now up to a 6 – 6.5. The increase has been a result of spreading lime and paddock grazing which sees organic matter and improved phosphate and potassium indexes through the livestock doing the work of leaving their muck behind evenly distributed across the field.
There is still room for improvement, our P & K indexes are around 2, but we are definitely going in the right direction. It is 4 years since Farming Connect did a whole farm soil sampling, it will be interesting to see the changes.
Having the Precision Grazing team on board has seen Neil make less mistakes than if he started paddock grazing on his own, watching online tutorials can take you so far, but having the help and advice at the kitchen table will take you further.
Get advice from day one. Looking back it is something I should have done, regardless of being a Farming Connect demo farm. This is a big change to your farming system, so it’s worth getting it right.
Neil is now confident in using both Agrinet (Pasture measurement programme) and Farmax (Farm Management) hand in hand to assess the quantity of pasture on the farm and forward plan key decisions to ensure he has sufficient feed looking ahead.
It helps me have a clearer picture of where I will be and what actions I need to take such as, housing stock, supplement feeding or to sell stock. This saves me a lot of time and minimises procrastination!
Measuring and monitoring the pasture available, moving the stock regularly and resting the paddocks for >35 days, set the farm up in a good position for when the rain arrived following the dry summer of 2022.
How we are using the farm has changed quite a bit, we are making use of fields we once overlooked, and making the bigger fields into paddocks has really improved grass growth in them.
The most challenging part of changing to a new system was for Neil to ‘get his head around it’, working out stocking rates and having more cattle on the farm. Having Precision Grazing to help with advice and guidance made it a doable change.
Neil feels the return on his investment of time and attending meetings is ‘massive’ and a figure really can’t be put on it. He knows he is fortunate to have received this as being a Farming Connect demo farm, but the investment into setting up the system, taking the time to grass measure and use the apps has so many benefits to him and the business.
I would never go back to what we were doing before
Being part of a Prosper from Pasture discussion group and Welsh Pasture Project, run by Precision Grazing has been an important part of the journey, being able to speak and meet with other farmers who are facing the same problems, means Neil has not felt alone during this time, which was especially important during the dry summer and knowing they were all facing the same issues.
Losing the BPS is a concern, and Neil feels he is not yet there in terms of farming without it, however the new system means he can carry a lot more stock and selling the 150 head of cattle yearly ensures more income.
We are definitely in a better position than we were 4 years ago. Using the paddock grazing system means we are managing the grass better which results in higher yields which in turn has meant we can produce more to sell with less inputs
The next five years will see Neil concentrate on getting water into all the paddocks, look to split them even more, start with some herbal leys and to improve on what he has already done.
I will never for back to that system, going forward we are going to build on what we have achieved and make it even better.
260 Acres owned / 230 Rented
Common rights for 2000 breeding ewes plus followers
600 Texel x / Mules – lambing January- March
1400 Epynt Hardy Speckle ewes – lambing April
150 Angus x Dairy finishers
Grass mix – Various but mainly Wynnstay mid-term ryegrass mixes
Standing 1400ft up on the hill watching 700 sheep run into new paddock, heads down grazing within minutes is an impressive sight. Knowing that the whole move took less than 15 minutes, including fence down, sheep through, water trough moved, fence up meaning Tom can head home to have the rest of the day free to get on with other jobs is even more impressive!
After a dry summer seeing grass that had ‘looked like a desert’ only weeks before, being greened up with ewes putting on flushing condition is even better. Going from worrying about how to out-winter sheep without creating a muddy pit to a planned grazing system where sheep out-winter on differed grass and bales, whist lambing fields are rested ready for ewes in April is a great testament to the positive impact Tom has seen.
Tom Burge, 4th generation farmer at Oaremead Farm on the Exmoor coast, had left the farm to become an engineer but the farm called him back. 6 months in New Zealand was spent seeing forage-based sheep systems and on his return Tom knew he faced a cross road, taking these new learnings, a new road was travelled. Tom took over the sheep enterprise, his parents main passion being the cattle, he was left to make his mark. Introducing a NZ Highlander ram and Romney ewes into the system, to improve the genetics, increase lambing percentage from less but more productive ewes.
I achieved this pretty quickly, within 3 to 4 years, I was producing more live lambs, more kilos of live weight but then I hit a point and couldn’t get above it.
Tom started to look at the quality of feed he was putting in front of the sheep, and he turned to fertiliser. A few years in, his fert rep, Sandy Campbell came to tell him he was joining a new company called Precision Grazing, and that there was another way to improve forage quality– paddock grazing. Wanting to grow grass without fertiliser interested Tom, and he became one of Precision Grazing first customers.
Working together they set out to trial 150 acres on the big upland fields; the land was GPS mapped and marked out to 0.1ha, to make it easy to divide into 1ha paddocks. 3 wire permanent electric fencing, using Kiwitech Arrow Posts was erected down the middle of each field with a 25mm water pipe laid on the surface underneath the fence with quick release hydrants every 200m.
I tend to run 1ha paddocks, it just makes it so much easier for myself.
Starting with a mob of 250 ewes and moving them every 2-3 days he soon saw the benefits of the new grass growth growing behind them.
I was convinced straight away and knew we had to get more land into the paddock grazing system.
Tom has kept to the 1ha paddocks but has increased the size of his mobs, post weaning he will run 700 ewes in a flock which are moved more frequently, leaving longer rest periods.
Tom’s next challenge for James was to get the ewes out-wintered and move to outdoor lambing. Previously in the winter all the field gates would be opened, and the ewes given a free rein of the farm, resulting in a muddy pit, with ewes tracking through gateways to find grass.
I knew I wanted to lamb outdoors but there just wasn’t the grass for them in the spring.
Under this management there was no grass for outdoor lambing; instead there were the high costs of indoor lambing including labour and feeding cake. Moving animals regularly through the paddocks has increased pasture growth with some of this carried forward as differed grass for winter. Adding in some silage bales has meant that the lower farm fields were closed after they had been used for tupping, giving them a 4month rest before the ewes came back down to do a pre-lambing rotation before being set stocked in April.
When the ewes came down to lamb the grass behind them up on the hill was already recovering – thanks to the paddock system – I am convinced this is the way forward.
James gave Tom the confidence to move away from feeding 50+ ton of concentrate, knowing he had enough grass for ewes and lambs. This is massive cost saving to the farm along with the ‘hidden’ costs of labour, machinery and time saved.
We actually have less problems lambing outdoors, the lambs aren’t picking up bacteria and our losses have reduced.
As well as the permanent electric fencing Tom started with just 2 x 300m 3 wire Kiwitech temporary fences, moving them leap frog style to create paddocks for the ewes. This did make the job harder, as fencing had to be moved every couple of days, but it proved the system would work with minimal investment. Tom soon bought more equipment and now has 14 x 300m 3 wire kits. One day a week is set aside to set up the next weeks fences, this is done with Josh, their stockman which means they both know the coming weeks moves, giving Tom the confidence to leave the farm knowing there is a plan in place.
Seeing the new grass shoots growing, improving the grass quality, achieving higher yields and seeing ‘new’ old grass species come back to these permanent leys has really opened Toms eyes.
We are seeing better water infiltration, we aren’t seeing the run-off the hills anymore, and if there is some, it will be caught by the paddock below, it’s no longer running down the road.
Better water infiltration, more earthworms and better soil biology all lead to the farm faring well over the extended dry spring and summer. The grass recovered quickly after the first bit of rain, due to its rest, enabled by planned grazing and weaning early to get the ewes up onto the upland grazing so the lambs could have the best pasture.
There was no market for early store lambs, so I had to keep them and prioritise them until the market came back. To achieve this we culled out the older cows and leaner ewes to reduce our feed demand. This also protected ewe body condition and helped to ensure we have enough grass on farm for winter and a successful spring.
The rotations were slowed down, but whereas other farms were opening all the gates, Tom kept to the paddock grazing, making sure they didn’t go back to the same place too quickly.
The beauty of paddock grazing is the flexibility it offers, enabling you to adapt to the conditions, be they dry or wet, long swards or short swards. Tom started with 21-day rest periods but now pushes them to 30-35-day rest periods depending on the paddock.
Some fields are just naturally slower to recover than others.
Toms knowledge of his land has grown since using this system, helped by James and Sandy to get the system in place and learning from them, Tom is keen to keep splitting the paddocks more and create more moves for the sheep.
Water has been key to the system and Tom, with his engineer hat on, has devised the systems, taking advantage of streams, springs and bore holes. Making his own solar panel water pump; moving water 100ft up hill, watered 40 cows and 250 ewes throughout the summer. Water is fed from source, to holding tanks, along blue pipe and into Kiwitech quick release hydrants and moveable troughs.
The savings are huge when you invest time and money into water, it allows you to concentrate on the animals and paddock rotations. When you finally stop using fertiliser it makes it worth it.
Once spreading 50 ton of fertiliser Tom has gradually reduced this amount to 0 tonnes thanks to the changes in grazing management. Removing the use of chemicals has helped improve the soil biology resulting in increased pasture growth. Tom has introduced little wins, grazing the sheep on the top of the hill in the day and moving them to steep fields at night, for them to drop their dung and build the organic matter on fields which is the past have seen soil depletion from soil run off in high rainfalls.
Knowing his costs is important and he uses a farm account management programme and spreadsheet for budgeting, inputting predicted and then actual costs throughout the year to show how much each lamb needs to make, identifying where savings can be made and guiding investment for that year.
I like to know what things are costing me and the time spent on the computer is invaluable. It also makes me thinks of new ways to do things to save money.
On the hill round hay bales are lined up, for the suckler cows to out-winter on. Still under the control of his father, Tom is keen to see them calve outside in the future, but in the meantime, he has them out-wintering until they are housed for calving in February. The hay will be rolled out to be eaten and trampled, to add organic matter and seed back into the soil.
When I first did it my neighbours thought I was crazy, but the most rewarding thing is now seeing them do it.
Taking everyone on the journey can be difficult, your vision is not everyone’s, and long-standing systems can be hard to change, as humans we fear the unknown. However, Tom has worked out that by planting a seed in his parents’ mind, water and care for it, will see it eventually come to fruition.
It took a bit for my parents to get their head around the new sheep system, but now they love it.
As farmers it is too easy to fall into the trap of being too busy, a place that Tom knows well, however like Tom, you have to find a way to do it, not necessarily all by yourself but with help from James and his team. Learning from others and creating a flexible adapted system is what Precision Grazing bring with them, the knowledge and access to other people who are also facing the same challenges and great rewards as you. Creating a hub of people around you, maybe not geographically but via technology means you are not alone. There are answers and reassurance at the end of the phone.
Tom is now at another cross road, he has seen the positive changes that paddock grazing has made to farm, better and more quality grass, improved soil biology and water infiltration, his brain has expanded and he wants more; organic, regenerative, getting the whole farm in the system. Putting hedges back, planting trees for shelter belts are all on the part of the future of Oaremead Farm.
Start small, but start, contact James come for a farm visit, but start and grow the system. Seeing that fresh growth within a few days is the lightbulb moment and it is addictive.
In the grand scheme of things this is a low-cost system, with big savings. Cutting back on fertiliser and feed and using the BPS to get this system in place is time and money well spent.
Having got through one of his toughest farming years, weather wise, Tom knows this is a system that works and is excited about where he can go next. A growing interest in soil, carbon storage and regenerative agriculture, he hopes to increase cattle numbers on the farm and create a premium mutton from his Scotch Blackfaced ewes.
This system has helped Tom adapt, the system and himself. Being less reliant on the inputs gives you back control, and if there ever was a true word ‘less is more’.
Looking for new ideas to make things simpler on farm has seen Tom start using Bokashi to compost the cattle manure. Sprinkled onto the straw beds, Bokashi ferments the muck and aids its decomposition, stored under cover, the composting process speeds up the breakdown of the muck and straw, reduces the quantity and produces a better end product to go back out on the field, helping store more carbon and nutrients.
1150 Romney x ewes
500 scotch blackface ewes and wethers
100 Angus suckler cows
North Exmoor – looking over Bristol channel
Farm yard – 750-1400ft (230-420m) – runs up to 1400ft
Average rainfall – 62-66” (1600-1700ml)
Soils – Peat on the hill – down to a sandy loam
Aim – to build up organic matter on the steep hills to improve overall farm productivity. Selling Exmoor Premium Mutton for scotch blackface and in time selling our own beef.
We changed because we had to, but when we had to, we wanted to
A family to not follow the ‘party’ line, Mike and Sam Roberts have been making some radical and crucial changes to their farm. Change is something they are familiar with, moving from a mixed farming system, to rearing calves and sheep to selling them to start a suckler herd then change genetics from Limousine to Stabilisers.
The summer of 2019 was dry, the cows had only been turned out in mid-April but by mid-September there was no grass for them! Sam who had come home to the farm after a few years in the building trade was frustrated, surely this wasn’t normal? He had seen James from Precision Grazing talking at a National Beef Association event a couple years previously about the benefits of rotational grazing and how it could extend the grazing season, perhaps this was something they could do?
Mike however was reluctant to have a consultant on farm, what do they know different to what we know? However, thanks to a family connection he knew James was a “decent chap” and so agreed to a meeting.
James was focused, and when he came out for his initial visit he wanted to hear about the farm, see the accounts and farm maps but also was prepared to ask the more difficult questions; ‘What do you want to do?’, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’
It was good to be asked, as farmers we rarely get challenged and so carry on doing what we have always done. If James hadn’t asked those questions we would still be in the old system – Sam
With James’s help they pulled apart their end of year accounts to extract the income and costs relating to the suckler cow enterprise. These were converted into a set of management accounts which told them they were in the top 10% of suckler farmers in England (according to AHDB Benchmark), however, despite this they were only making £26 per cow (before BPS but not including labour).
Hearing that really concentrates the mind and a made us question what we were doing – what was the point of it all?Mike
For Mike and Sam, it was clear that to increase profitability they needed to reduce costs or increase output or both! Listening to their personal interests and aims – to spend less time sat on a tractor, to grow the herd, to afford to take some rented land back in hand and be able to take more time off the farm, James developed a new plan for the enterprise. This was based on using rotational grazing to increase pasture grown and utilised, allowing a reduction in the costs of nitrogen fertiliser, purchased feed and housing whist increasing stocking rate and animal performance.
Sam was keen to start, however for Mike, talk of electric fences had visions of cattle out wintering on forage beets, paddling in mud, no fun for the person moving the fence or the cattle standing in it! With some discussion and persuasions Mike agreed to adopt the 5 Year vision with the compromise of a “proof of concept” trial in Year 1
Two fields totalling 9ha had recently been reseeded with a herbal ley, this was identified as a great place to start paddock grazing; it was split into 9x 1ha paddocks using temporary electric fencing, each with access to water via a pipe on the surface to 2 x permanent troughs. The pasture was measured, with Sam receiving training from James on how to use a plate meter and in mid-March a bunch of weaned steers were put out onto it, the differences were clear to see.
That year was a tough one, a dry cold spring, and yet the grass in that paddock grazing grew back really well whist the set stocked cattle on other parts of the farm had nothing in-front of them!
The paddock grazing system exceeded all expectations, even yielding surplus silage whist growing the steers at over 1kg a day. With the trial a success thoughts turned to the rest of the farm, keen to get on, Sam starting using temporary fencing to fence and divide more fields into paddocks for other groups. Although effective in extending the grazing season this had a high labour cost.
Thankfully they had applied for a Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme in a bid to improve their boundary fencing which had been neglected whist farm profit had been low. This was helpful as the funding received for this essential work helped to release cash to spend on sub-dividing the larger fields into paddocks.
In Year 2 to help reduce labour and continue to increase productivity James helped them to set up a paddock grazing system in 4 permanent pasture fields totalling 36Ha. Previously grazed by two groups of cows and calves who would rock forward and back between two fields, a permanent 2 strand electric fence was erected through the middle to divide them in half and across both ways in the largest field to divide that into four. A new water system was installed with 32mm pipe suppling permanent concrete troughs located in the central fence every 200m ran down its middle. This set-up means that with a pair 200m of temporary electric fences 36x 1Ha paddocks can be created.
Previously with 2 groups and four fields 18Ha would have been getting grazed at any one time, now thanks to the paddock system two groups means only 2ha is being grazed and 34ha are being rested. Because of this the increase in pasture productivity and quality has been amazing.
Creating infrastructure, which enables a rest period between grazing events allows more pasture growth. When you set-stock the animals are grazing the regrowth, meaning you have to resort to nitrogen fertiliser or creep feed to lift the productivity. Investing in infrastructure is a one-time investment; you remove the need for those high-costs, annual inputs of fertiliser and feed as well as the associated labour.
In 2020 Mike and Sam were invited to take part in Farm Net Zero Project which aims to demonstrate how livestock farms can achieve Net Zero within 5 years. This has opened them up to new information and thinking sparking another level of interest in soils, carbon and the value of diverse species mixes. One of only three farms in Cornwall to be chosen as part of the project, they have planted different winter forage mixes containing 3, 6, 10 and 13 species. Some to the species chosen include; radish, rape, kale, forage rye, vetch, oats, crimson clover and sunflowers. Drilled in late August, due to the dry summer, the diverse mix has grown really well considering its slow start.
The aim of this work is to quantify the benefits of increased diversity on soil health, carbon sequestration, animal health and performance and overall system carbon footprint. As an additional aim Mike and Sam would like to find a way to stop using Glyphosate when re-seeding whist minimising tillage.
Chemicals have displaced management and effort, they have been a quick fix, time wise, but not for the capital of the farm or the soil – James
Alongside the diverse species winter forage crops mixes aimed at weaned calves, they have used their rotational grazing to build up a bank of pasture (differed grass) for the dry cows which will be fed alongside hay bales already placed in the fields.
It is exciting to see where a farm can come from and get to. The whole farm has been soil sampled, for organic matter, P & K, and micro-nutrients. Some land has relatively high organic matter (16%) but low active carbon meaning nutrient cycling is low, other fields, historically used for arable have lower organic matter (4%). Both field types have the potential to increase their stores of carbon whist increasing nutrient availability and rotational grazing is a key tool to achieve this.
As the soil health improves so will productivity – this creates a win-win meaning more organic matter is return which in turn feeds the soil biology, it’s like a big fly wheel gathering momentum. – James
As Blable farm moves forward to producing more from less, they will be looking at getting the right genetics for their system, selecting the Stabiliser bulls that suit being grown and finished off pasture and introducing another native breed to use as a terminal line. They will continue to invest in infrastructure and herbal leys to reduce labour, lift productivity and improve soil health.
Seeing the vision of an improved bank balance, with cattle out for longer and less slurry to handle and less time on a tractor has seen those initial difficult questions answered and fulfilled.
We changed because we had to, but when we had to we wanted to – Mike
Farming is changing and changes are coming fast, highlighted by not only BPS coming to an end but the rising costs of inputs and climate change. Knowing your strong and weak points is key and getting someone like James from Precision Grazing to come and look at your farm through different eyes is so important and to ask those difficult questions.
Effective Area: 200Ha
No Cattle: 148hd Suckler Cows
Soil type: loam to clay loam
Rainfall: 1200mm (47”)
Elevation: 50-200m (180-650ft)
Images and words by Sian Mercer, My Rural Tribe.
Take a listen to our conversation and others like it by clicking below.
Joining the farming partnership on this 3rd generation Devonshire farm, was a great opportunity for Chris, but did start the question of Why are we doing it like this? Legally bound to sign off the accounts he started to question the finances and realised that without the BPS they were not looking good. Why?
We were a ‘traditional’ farm, Continental X South Devon suckler herd, early lambing Dorset & Suffolk X ewes, spring lambing mules, feed, fert, heavy carcass weights, always busy but looking back totally inefficient.
Further talks with his YFC and college peers, the question of why are we working long hard hours, when others are working less for a better income, really started to be questioned.
Not one to sit still, Chris won a farming scholarship to New Zealand and this was the ‘lightbulb’ moment he needed, seeing forage based systems with 1 man running 4000 sheep whilst him and his father worked hard with 600 really hit home, there was a better, simpler way of doing things. On coming home Chris was keen to make changes, starting with the sheep genetics.
He bought in a couple New Zealand Highlander rams; forage based, hardy out-door lambing genetics, he was crossed onto 160 Mule ewes. With something to prove and a positive mindset, Chris saw a successful first lambing, which was the catalyst of change.
Next were the cattle, a move to an Angus x South Devon meant a hardy, polled, lighter, easier calving cow, which could finish well, without the high inputs of creep feed. A welcomed move away from the heavy continental finished at 24-30 months who spent most of their life growing a frame to eventually put the 400kg desired weight on to.
We didn’t jump in all at once, it was a gradual change, as we had more questions, but we found answers from people doing the job well.
Conversations, questioning, delving into the finances, all expand the mind, and see changes of opinions and ideas. It leads to questioning ‘is this the right way’? Is this the only way? These conversations and small moments in time led to gradual changes for Chris, for which he is grateful, making it fun to look at the farm again through different eyes and see what else can be done.
Signing up to the AHDB Benchmarking (https://farmbench.ahdb.org.uk) highlighted that later lambing looked better on paper, with the Highlander X sheep already in the system this was the evidence he needed to start finishing the lambs off grass and reduce reliance creep feed. The autumn suckler herd and arable were both working at a loss, the time had come to unleash the forage-based system Chris had been working towards!
Benchmarking is a really important tool for understanding your business, and the farming community is not good at doing this. Any decent business will have its focus on costs, as most of them haven’t got a subsidy to fall back on.
Chris started rotational grazing on his own, seeking answers from others already on the journey. Visits to other farmers, talking it through and seeing it with his own eyes saw him make a start. Having the gear and some idea but no plan for infrastructure Chris knew he needed help. Newly married with a baby on the way, Chris needed to up his rotational grazing game, so he could be focused and have more family time.
Bringing James from Precision Grazing into the farm business was a game changer, focusing the mind, setting Chris in the right direction and keeping him on track! James brought with a different perspective of the farm, answers to a growing list of questions and accountability.
Measuring to manage the grass, benchmarking and creating a sustainable system that worked for the whole farm to ensure they could keep grass in-front of stock during the dry Devon summers, were the key aims for Precision Grazing and Chris to achieve.
Getting out on farm plate metering saw the utilisation of the FARMAX program but importantly saw Chris re-connecting with the farm, as he walked and measured the farm with his newborn son strapped to his chest.
Walking with him on my chest gave me a different feel for how life might be, especially for him and the farm – I just knew it was the right direction to be going in.
Next came herbal leys, to Chris they had been ‘a bunch of weeds’ until he discovered their value. The risks of the farm were the dry summers on free draining sandy soils, trying (with limited success) to finish lambs on summer brassicas and keep forage in front of the stock. James suggested herbal leys. Loving a trial Chris took out 8ha from the arable land and planted a mix of chicory, plantain, red and white clover, put the weaned lambs in at 26kg and weighing them off field a month later at 36kg – this was the ‘magic bullet’ the farm needed.
Requiring no fertiliser and being drought resilient, Chris was convinced to establish more and took the opportunity to do so under the Countryside Stewardship Mid-tier Scheme sowing a mix compliant mix of 5 grasses, 5 herbs, 5 legumes including 10% red clover. Herbal leys now account for 20% of the farm area, a target set by James as the minimum area needed to provide sufficient – summer safe grazing for finish lambs. This, combined with grazing management, has been a big game changer to the farm business.
The whole system is now geared towards soil biology which Chris knows is their biggest on farm asset. Farming with high fertiliser and chemical inputs will only make the soil more acidic which has a negative impact on soil health. No inputs, a grazing plan and growing herbal leys have seen a positive change to the soil health and organic matter levels.
These changes have also had a wider environmental impact, being part of a Carbon footprint case study, Chris was able to show that he has reduced his emission by 156ton of carbon a year. The reduction in inputs is also saving the business £47,000 a year whist production has increased – see below!
Impact (2018 vs 2021)
● Antibiotic usage from 186.35 mg/PCU to 43.13 mg/PCU (Saving £1012)
● Worth = £32,000 / year (£180/ha) (based on average of £4.5/kgDW)
Total Benefit = £440/ha/year!
This summer was a dry one, the last decent rain fell the day before lambing started, which was great for the lambing season, but as the dry weather continued, the grass growth slowed, and decisions had to be made. Lambs were weaned earlier, and priority grazed on the herbal leys, so they could be finished quickly. Cattle were shut up on silage.
Having a plan in place gave Chris the confidence to make these changes, knowing what covers he had going forward, ensured there was light at the end of the tunnel for this seasons grazing but also knowing he was making decisions to protect ewe condition to ensure a good scanning, preventing one tough year becoming two tough years.
The rain came at the end of September, and the rested fields and herbal leys were extremely quick to recover meaning the farm is now in a great positon heading into winter – a testament to what planned paddock grazing can achieve.
Chris feels 100% that he is in a positive place moving forward as the BPS declines and input costs increase, as he is able to farm without them, he has taken back the control and has enthusiasm and excitement for farming.
Knowing the finances are there to do something you love with a system you’ve been creating for 10 years really has given me back the excitement of farming.
Having Precision Grazing push him in the right direction has sped up the farms progression by 10 years. Having someone who has experience, a positive mindset and who Chris is accountable to was the right decision for him to take.
Going forward Chris is confident in his system, but is happy to not sit still as he is excited where the farm has come from and where it can go! Improving the infrastructure with some permanent electric fencing to split the largest fields in half will simplify the system and reduce labour further.
Advice for those thinking of changing their grazing system –
Be curious, don’t be afraid to try things, don’t expect them to fail – give it your all!
The future is certainly looking good for Higher Thornton farm, by moving to a system that feeds the soil biology, grows drought resistant plants and cuts out external inputs has given Chris the gift of control.
I have a low risk farm, good financial security and time to spend with my young family– it is all looking rosey!