Precision Grazing – Meet the Farmer – Philip Hughes -Keeping it simple for pasture and farm performance
Trying to make himself redundant from his own business is what Philip Hughes is trying his best to do with the help of a paddock grazing system and Precision Grazing consultants James Daniel and Rhys Williams.
Philip is running a diverse family business; sheep, beef, a thriving caravan park and his new ventures of anaerobic digester, data centre and soon to be growing pharmaceutical crops. To ensure all are successful, they need to be well run with a simple business plan that his (expanding) team can take the lead on whilst they perform financially, socially and environmentally. Aiming for redundancy will allow Philip to further grow and diversify the family farm.
Once a traditional welsh hill farm, with suckler cows, store cattle, a Welsh hill flock and lowland Texel flock, set stocking, feeding cake and creep feed saw them doing their best and just getting by. But then in 2019 two things happened, they learnt there would a new subsidy regime and tax went digital.
No more receipts being sent off to accountant in an old shoe box, the different livestock enterprises were inputted into Xero accounting software, figures analysed, costs seen and the figures were sobering, suddenly they could see what the subsidy was hiding, they were making a loss, they were spending £3 external investment to make £1 turnover which was financial madness. Things needed to change, and quickly.
Sarah, Philip’s wife encouraged him to attend the Farming Connect Master Grass programme which was facilitated by James Daniel from Precision Grazing, this 2 day intensive course was the start of turning the farm business around, to a place where they could make a profit before subsidy.
On his return home Philip bought some electric fence and trialled it out on a small part of the farm, and the changes were quick, the pasture recovered quickly but he knew if he wanted to get to the next level, he would need help to get there.
Moving to rotational grazing is a fundamental change to a farming system that has been generations in the making on our family farm; it is a massive change, and I genuinely wouldn’t have made the changes without the external help of Precision Grazing.
Rhys Williams (Precision Grazing) helped design the paddock grazing system on the Ffridd and lowlands of the farm, working together with Philip to create a plan, which is reviewed each month on Zoom or in person, along with the grazing & pasture management and business performance budgets & plans. The result, more forage than they knew what to do with! For instance one block of land that once held 120 ewes now holds between 180-200. They are working towards doubling the farm’s output through extra pasture production whist eliminating the need for purchased inputs.
Furthermore the pasture is of much higher quality, lambs have increased daily liveweight gains and now B&B Aberdeen Angus X dairy calves have been introduced into the system to increase stocking rate and improve the soil biology even more.
Having water in the right places is key. Water and fences are an investment, there is no getting away from this, but it makes life easier and the job doable and the achievements greater.
Challenges were faced in the start of this journey, but good changes came from them. Under and over grazing, poor grass quality, too much grass and scald were frustrations, but with the help of Rhys they overcame them as they got in sync with the system, and now the rewards far outweigh these initial challenges.
A simple system that everyone understands makes the system work.
Bringing the family and shepherds on board has helped create a simple system that they all understand and can buy into. Communication has increased and improved the farm business, now a daily team talk in the morning and a 1hr once a week in the office conflab ensures everyone is heard and can feed into the business with their ideas and knowledge, this has been a game changer and has benefited the business more than that hour would have by carrying out physical farm work, so much so Philip will be increasing this to a 2hour office time.
It is key to have a detailed measuring plan – if this is neglected you get ½ of what it can present.
Precision Grazing provide the tools to help implement a simple system, Philip uses an excel sheet to input animal numbers and demands, plus grass metered data and information on each paddock. Grass metering the farm once a month is key, not only does it get you into your farm it confirms what you know but also shows the improvements which is a massive boost. Philip was very aware of rotational grazing systems that have been adopted into many dairy farms, but before meeting Precision Grazing he did not have the confidence or knowledge to introduce it in to a beef and sheep farm with multiple mobs on such varying land types. With the help and guidance of Precision Grazing he now has the knowledge and confidence to work this type of system.
Soil sampling and liming are key to good grassland.
Soil samples are carried out each year with lime spread in the September so it is ready for the crops uptake in the spring, seeing optimum investment in the pasture and swede crops. Before starting rotational grazing and inputting AD, the farm historically spread 20.10.10 as a standard fertiliser and soil PH was in the low 5’s, and Index 2-3 for Phosphate. Now soil PH is around 6.5 and phosphate index 1, and the grass keeps growing, showing that the soil biology has woken up, is alive and doing its job.
The farm has historically been low production, set stocked leys but with the guidance of Precision Grazing he is now implementing a 2 Track approach;
Track 1 – Improve the grazing management by using Precision Grazing. Apply digestate to improve the soil biology and nutrient content and leave a profitable and productive farm.
Track 2 – Rejuvenate pastures by seeding new grass leys in a 7 year rotation along with swedes and Redstart (hybrid fodder rape and kale which keeps growing) by direct drilling (to keep carbon in the soil). New grass leys are more cost effective than buying cake. Swedes are costing 3.5p per ewe per day, which is a massive saving on winter feed costs and will offer 80% DM with the remaining 20% DM received from silage. At the moment new grass leys are based on a Rye grass, timothy, red & white clover mix, but Philip is interested to try herbal leys and this is where the advice from Precision Grazing is key, they are learning and gaining knowledge and expertise which they pass on through their consulting work.
What will be really interesting is can we get to the quality of grass and farm performance that we need with good management alone or do we need to rejuvenate with new seed mixes – time will tell.
Can you put a cost on changing and transforming a business? As consultants they keep expanding and changing the thought process to keep us moving forward and evolving our business, and you can’t put a number on that!
Among the “hard to quantify benefits to the business is the Prosper From Pasture discussion group which Precision Grazing facilitate on behalf of Farming Connect. A network of people coming together to share their data, farm figures, the good, the bad and the ugly has shown Philip what can be achieved. When he joined, Hendwr was at the bottom of the league table, and now with the help and encouragement of others he is improving and in a better place. Learning from external speakers and having someone to pick up the phone to has opened many new doors as being the only one in the area paddock grazing can be lonely, but the discussion group has stopped that happening.
Having a Precision Grazing ‘pasture first approach’ means control has been taken back by the farm business. Suddenly the external pressures are not there; the high feed and fertilizer prices etc. which means that money can be spent where they want it to be.
I feel more in control and therefore more relaxed knowing what the plan is, and I can see a way through to the future. I want to hand the farm over, to whoever that is, in really good shape; financially, productively with enhanced biodiversity and using this system will ensure that happens.
- Get the infrastructure set up quickly – boundary fences, paddocks and water
- Get to grips with measuring and planning as early as possible – use a simple excel sheet
- Get to know your farm – walk it with you plate meter
- Communicate with your team – get them on board and buying into the system
- Keep it simple – farm for your farm.
Just do it! Try it on a small block of ground, grow your confidence and knowledge and once you have that you will keep on going.
The benefits of having extra team members through working withof Precision Grazing is so beneficial. Change is hard but you don’t need to struggle, help is there with expertise, knowledge and guidance plus a whole network of other farmers who have been there and are getting the T’Shirt.
- 4th Generation
- 400ha (1000 Acres) – 60% Berwyn Mountain, 20% Improved Ffridd, 20% Improved lowland grassland
- 500ft – 2800ft ASL
- Soils – lowland loamy gravels up to mountain peatlands and all in between.
- 65’’ (1650mm) average rainfall
- 1000 Welsh ewes
- 400 Texel ewes (to be dispersed)
- 120 AA x dairy calves with aim to more than double
- Farm – Welsh Hill flock, B&B AA x Dairy calves
- Caravan park – which was set up in the 1960’s
- AD Plant fed on slurry and broiler litter
- Data Centre
- Moving into growing pharmaceutical crops
Words and Images by Sian Mercer, My Rural Tribe.
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