Participation in GrassCheckGB has helped Welsh sheep producer, Anwen Hughes, slash costs of production simply through better management and utilisation of grass.

Sheep and grass producer, Anwen Hughes, describes her farming system in West Wales as ‘low-cost, medium-output’. She is justified in this portrayal of her upland farm, having slashed the value of bought-in, bagged fertilizer from £8,000 to £3,000 per year; cut the annual use of concentrate feed from £4,000 to under £1,500; and delivered over 300 lambs each year, reared or finished on nothing other than home-grown grass.

Farming 200 Lleyn-cross commercial ewes in partnership with her husband, Rhodri, on 35ha (86 acres) at Bryngido Farm, near New Quay, Ceredigion, it is the couple’s grassland management which has transformed the farm’s physical and financial performance. As participants in the GrassCheckGB project – an industry, academic and levy board collaboration designed to help British farmers improve their grassland management efficiency – they now measure grass growth with a plate meter every week, have split the farm’s fields into paddocks of 0.6-0.8 ha (1.5-2 acres) and rotationally graze, rather than set-stock, throughout most of the year.

The production cycle on the farm effectively begins this month, when fields which are allocated for tupping are closed to allow the grass to recover.

“We usually get good grass growth over the next six weeks and ideally like to have covers of 2,500-3,000kg dry matter per hectare by the time of tupping,” she says.

Putting out rams with two groups of ewes from 5 November, they remain with their groups until mid- to late-December.

“Initially, 100 ewes are set-stocked in one 10 acre [4ha] field and 100 in the other, each with one ram,” she says. 

However, by 1 December, the two groups are combined and rotationally grazed on paddocks of 0.6ha (1.5 acres), remaining on each paddock for three to four days.

“Last year they would have had the whole field but we want to have more control and are splitting more fields into paddocks so we can ensure we don’t have to feed silage,” she says.

This is in contrast to earlier winters when the farm has grown swedes for strip-grazing – a practice now discontinued.

“We would put one field into swedes every year but had some very wet years, had to pull ewes out of the mud and one year had a crop failure,” she says. 

Realising that year how well the ewes outwintered on grass, the couple decided to develop this practice and scrapped the use of swedes.

“This has cut our costs as we would have reseeded one field with grass after swedes every year,” she says. “But now we won’t plough up grassland unless we see a deterioration in production.”

Despite the success of outwintering ewes, one group is still housed over winter. 

“These are the Welsh Mountains and Badger Faces which are actually being phased out,” she says. “They’re a brilliant breed but unfortunately there’s very little domestic market demand for them which we have to look to in the face of uncertain exports.”

Ewes are scanned in February when those carrying singles and triplets are housed for management purposes while those with twins are set-stocked on grass.

“We set-stock four weeks prior to lambing until around two weeks after as the ewes can find better shelter in the larger fields and better protection from foxes,” she says.

With lambing running from 1 April for up to three weeks, the ewes receive concentrates for around two weeks after lambing, depending on the year. They are then returned with their lambs to rotational grazing in paddocks by mid- to late-May.

“By that time, the fields have had three to four months of rest so there should be a good wedge of grass,” she says. “In fact, if we take concentrates out to the field, the ewes won’t eat it as they’re full from the grass.”

Also rearing the lambs on grass alone without creep, she says a key effect of the farm’s better grassland utilisation has been to slash its concentrate use.

“In 2014, which was a difficult year, we spent £5,000 on concentrates but now it’s nearer £1,500,” she says.

This goes hand in hand with an annual dry matter yield of 10.6t/ha across the grazing platform, as measured through the GrassCheckGB project.

Grass production is such that lambs are weaned early at around 12 weeks by the end of June, and continue to be rotated around the paddock grazing system. Meanwhile, the ewes are put on to fields with lower covers, (1,600kg DM/ha or less), so they can dry off without risk of mastitis.

“This also gives them an extra month to put on condition before tupping, which we think gives us a better lambing percentage and healthier, fitter lambs,” says Anwen.  

Finished lambs start to be sold from early August, mostly destined for Dunbia and the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference scheme. Those left on the farm at the end of September are sold as stores.

“We could finish them but try to think ahead about grass for the ewes, so this is our cut-off point,” she says. “However, this year has been so exceptional that we started selling lambs in early July and may have finished them all by the end of this month.”

The plentiful grass cover – specifically relating to the lack of close contact with the soil – also appears to have improved the lambs’ worm burden, such that the worming programme has been reduced from six times, to three times each season.

Carcases have also improved, rising from an average 15kg deadweight at R3L around two years ago, up to 18.5kg deadweight at the same carcase grading this year.

This is largely attributed to the increased availability of higher quality grass since participating in GrassCheckGB from 2019. However, a slight decline in stocking rate and genetic improvement of the stock have also played a part.

The Lleyns have been improved through selecting high Estimated Breeding Value (EBV) animals, particularly for mothering ability, while the two composite rams – a Primera and an Aberfield – have been chosen for their performance on grass and are driving up the lambs’ growth rates.

Meanwhile, long term improvements are being made to soil structure through the use of some deep-rooting herbal leys including chickweed and plantain, while other swards on the farm comprise just high sugar grasses and clover.

All of this has contributed to good grass utilisation, averaging 74 per cent across the season, which Anwen describes as ‘reasonably good’.

“Other people on the project are achieving 85-90 per cent utilisation, so we could do better,” she says. “I’m hoping it’s possible to get 95 per cent!”