Precision Grazing – Meet the Farmer – Tom Burge – Journeys start at the cross roads
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.
Words and Images by Sian Mercer, My Rural Tribe.
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