Cell grazing and top sheep genetics are maximising production from grazed grass on a Welsh farm.

Maximising the value of meat produced from every hectare of grazed grass is the number one objective for sheep and beef producer, Alwyn Phillips on his farm in North Wales.

He achieves this on his 59 hectares (145acres) at Penygelli, located between Caernarfon and Bangor, through a combination of techniques. These include using cell grazing to maximise quality and utilisation of grazed grass; keeping two flocks of ewes to lamb in two defined blocks between December and April; and performance-recording his stock, including CT scanning, to help ensure he identifies and breeds from the genetically elite. 

Today, as a participant in GrassCheckGB – an industry, academic and levy board collaboration designed to help British farmers improve their grassland management – he also measures his grass production on a weekly basis and has its quality analysed every two weeks.

Describing the time he spends measuring grass as his ‘most valuable and productive couple of hours of the week’, he says it gives him an early warning of both surplus and shortfall and has convinced him his farm can grow more.

Sheep stock on the Phillips farm in North Wales.

Mr Phillips was an early convert to the principles of cell (or paddock) grazing, having travelled to New Zealand in the late 1990s to meet Harry Weir, a pioneer of the system.

Establishing the practice on his own farm in 2016, he says he ‘hasn’t looked back’, having dramatically increased the output of his swards. 

Unlike in set-stocking, which he says ‘hammers the good grasses, allowing the poorer species to become dominant and tough’, cell grazing presents only young grasses to the stock which are all evenly consumed.

Last year, GrassCheckGB figures showed the grazing platform at Penygelli produced 8.7 tonnes of dry matter per hectare from March to September and this year’s yield so far stands at 7.5t DM/ha, despite the early summer drought. This saw just 24.3mm of rainfall in April and May, compared with the normal average for Wales in these two months of 175.2mm.

Quality was also maintained at a high level through the entire 2020 growing season, starting in May with a metabolisable energy (ME) of 12.3 MJ/kg DM, holding up through the dry, early summer and last recorded on 8 October at 11.4MJ/kg DM. The average for the whole season was 11.6MJ/kg DM while crude protein averaged 20.2 per cent and sugars peaked at 21.3 per cent on 8 October and averaged 16 per cent through the season.  

“These GrassCheckGB figures give me performance-recorded grass to complement my performance-recorded lambs,” he says.

Nia Davies, R&D officer for HCC, one of the supporters of the GrassCheck GB programme concurs and says: “Measuring, recording and analysing data has allowed Alwyn to significantly improve the efficiency and performance of his business which is reflected in the quality of his livestock.”

Grazing in cells is said to be essential to achieving such consistency in grass quality and the grazing platform for the sheep is now set up in 25 one-hectare cells. Each field has a permanent central ‘hot-wire’ electric fence and central water pipe with ‘push-pull’ water troughs, allowing the fields to be sub-divided into one-hectare cells. These can be further subdivided when there are fewer stock.

“The optimum is to stock each cell with 250 ewes and their lambs for one day, but it’s not always possible to achieve exactly that,” he says. “The reality may be to stock with 60 ewes and lambs on a subdivided quarter hectare, and move them every day until they have grazed the whole hectare evenly.”

Ideally entering cells with covers of 2,200kg DM/ha he says it’s important to leave a residual of 1,500kg DM/ha.

“If you graze it to the bone and there’s no leaf left on the grass it will take far longer to recover,” he says. “It will have to draw on the reserves in its roots to restart its growth, potentially delaying its recovery by five or six days.

“But if you leave a residual of 1,500kg, you can literally see its growth the next day – hence the Kiwi expression, ‘grass grows grass’,” he says.

However, the system at Penygelli is about far more than growing grass, as it has to be converted, with the greatest possible efficiency, into quality meat.

This depends not only on lambing the flock of 230 Dorsets from late December/Jan and following this with the 200 Texels which lamb from late March through April, but also on seeking and breeding the highest possible genetics.

The system with the Dorset ewes is to strip-graze fodder beet and give lambs access to creep for early finishing at a high market price in a high-input high-output regime. Dorset lambs are mostly sold by May at target slaughter liveweights of 40-41kg, deadweights of 19.5-20.5kg and grades generally of R and U. 

“From the day a lamb is born it costs us money to keep, so the sooner it’s sent to slaughter, the more profitable it is,” says Mr Phillips.

Meanwhile, the 200 Texels lamb from late March through April, on to cells with high grass cover. All lambs are performance-recorded for weight (taken at birth, eight weeks and 18-20 weeks), and ease of lambing, while ultrasound scans record fat depth and eye muscle area. The elite from the crop go on to be CT scanned, giving an accurate measure of a cross-section of traits including total muscle, fat and bone, killing out percent and intramuscular fat.

The upshot of this and other policies – including the use of AI every third year to introduce new bloodlines to the closed flock – is to produce breeding stock of the highest genetic merit. Of the 60 shearling Texel rams sold off the farm, 55 are in the breed’s top one per cent and all have been selected for their ability to produce meat from grass.

“The Texel lambs are on grass all their life and we know they are good at converting grass into meat,” he says.

“If you keep pushing creep, you reach the day when the lambs are good at converting creep into meat,” he says. “Our intention is to supply rams to prime lamb producers so their lambs perform off grass – our cheapest source of food.”

Meanwhile, rams have gone on to excel in the industry’s UK-wide genetic improvement scheme, RamCompare, earning first place, (and other top placements) for overall carcase merit, and breed-leading EBVs (Estimated Breeding Values) for days to slaughter. Those Texel lambs which don’t make the grade for breeding are sold for slaughter, many making the highest E grade.

Despite the exceptional performance already achieved in producing meat from grass, Mr Phillips is confident he can do more.

“The potential is to grow 15-20 tonnes of grass DM/ha/year and we know we can improve,” he says. “I feel it’s much better to effectively gain acreage by growing more grass than paying rent for extra land of unknown quality and management.

“We aim to improve productivity by managing the cells better and improving utilisation of what we grow, with better forward planning, and with the help of AgriNet’s grassland management software,” he says.

This has proven invaluable in determining which cells to cut for silage, while always keeping grass at the optimum growth stage and quality in front of the stock.

Other routine practices include regular aeration with a slitter and reseeding leys around every eight years, following a winter crop of fodder beet.

Also trialling a herbal ley in a mix including deeper rooting chicory, plantain and clover, he says this will penetrate deep into the soil, improving its structure, drawing up water and minerals and allowing earthworms to work deeper into the soil.

“We don’t yet know how the stock will perform on the herbal ley but although the tonnage may be lower than a ryegrass sward, the feed conversion efficiency is expected to be better,” he says. 

“We’re learning all the time, and that’s why I take part in GrassCheckGB,” he says. “We don’t want to stand still and there’s always something to learn off the back of research. In fact, I consider the project to be my research budget!”

Penygelli Farm Facts

  • 59 hectares (145 acres), mostly sandy loam
  • 230 Dorset and 200 Texel sheep; 20 Limousin pedigree cows
  • Lambing in two blocks: Dec/Jan and March/April
  • Texels reared entirely on grass with no creep
  • All ewes and lambs cell grazed in one-hectare paddocks
  • Performance-record sheep which lead breed for genetics
  • Experimenting with herbal leys through GrassCheckGB