As winter draws to an end on Croglin High Hall Farm near Armathwaite in Cumbria, brothers Tom and Jimmy Stobart hope their efforts to restore health and resilience to the soil mean their land will support a relatively early turnout.

They are confident that a range of changes to their grazing and grassland management are paying dividends on their home farm, which rises to 600 feet above sea level on the western slopes of the Pennines. 

As participants in GrassCheckGB – an industry, academic and levy board collaboration designed to help British farmers improve their grassland management – they have closely monitored both grassland output and grass quality, and have been pleasantly surprised to have maintained both in the face of their changes. These include metabolisable energy averaging 11.5MJ/kg dry matter in both of the last two seasons, ranging from 10.5-12.5MJ/kg DM in 2020, and similar in 2019.

Rotational grazing has been central to their farming for many years, but when they first switched to the practice, their efforts were focussed on maintaining a high stocking rate to maximise output and, they believed, profitability. Artificial nitrogen was central to the success of the system and swards were grazed heavily, with residuals taken down to around 1,500kg DM/hectare, as is standard practice on many farms.

“We would always use 20:10:10 whether we needed it or not, and more recently moved to using 20-30kg/acre [50-74kg/ha] of urea,” says Tom.

Sheep numbers were also historically high, with a total 750 ewes split across two holdings totalling 780 hectares (1,927 acres), of which 685ha (1,693 acres) is hill farm, rising to 2,000 feet. Together with around 60 beef for fattening, this meant the two farms supported a high density of stock, although some would be outwintered on neighbouring farms, some would be fed concentrates, and forage would be bought in to see them through the winter.

Today, Tom says he and Jimmy have become ‘addicted to pasture’ and are making a concerted effort to produce most of their lamb and beef from forage and grass. Stocking densities have declined, and artificial nitrogen has been cut out altogether, although they are confident the carrying capacity of their land is improving.

Ewes have all been removed from the 95ha (235 acre) home farm, with just lambs coming down from the hill for finishing and hoggs to over-winter, and the overall flock cut to 350 head.

“We feel we were just too sheep-heavy,” he says. “They grazed too close, especially in the autumn, which gave us a slow recovery in spring.”

A key enterprise for the business today is the rearing of 250 head of Wagyu cross dairy cattle, which come on to the farm in batches of around 20 per month. Aged five to six months, they are kept until around 20 months when they are sold as stores on contract to Warrendale Wagyu.

“All of this means we are now basically stocking the farm according to its winter capacity and have no need to send any stock away to over-winter,” says Tom.

Some 100 head of Wagyu are over-wintered outside on grazed grass and brassicas, and turnout for the remaining 150 is expected to be in early March. This is despite later grazing in autumn, which now tends to run into November.

Tom is convinced that the better availability of grass and the carrying capacity of the land on the shoulders of the season is due to changes in management.

Earlier grazing is also thought to have worthwhile financial benefits, which is confirmed by Siwan Howatson, grass and forage scientist at AHDB. She says: “Research has shown every extra day’s spring grazing is worth £125 per 100 suckler cows.”

With Tom and Jimmy now operating a mob-grazing system, entry covers for the first grazing round in March will be around 2,200kg DM/ha, those through the summer will now be anything up to 3,500-4,000kg DM/ha, leaving residuals of around 1,950-2,000kg DM/ha. This is slightly higher than the 3,000kg DM/ha entry covers to 1,500kg DM/ha post-grazing residuals recommended in a standard rotational system.

“At turnout, we’ll put a lot of cattle into a small area [ap 0.3ha/0.74 ac] for 24 hours and then that ground will be rested for, say, 45 days, depending on the length of the rotation,” says Tom.

“This type of mob grazing and the subsequent rest really seem to help the more productive grass species do better. Ryegrass and clover for instance want to be eaten off and rested, and you can definitely see them starting to dominate the sward.

“We’ve also noticed the improvement in regrowth, which is much faster with the higher residual,” he says.

He describes a virtuous cycle in which species and sward quality are enhanced, soil structure improves and ploughing and reseeding are far less frequently required.

“We’re not constantly hammering the grass now but feel we’re more closely mimicking nature,” he says. “We’d never reseed for the sake of it now, although we will do so after this winter’s brassicas.”

Silage making has also become less prescriptive and whereas in the past a large area would have been cut in early June, now they take a smaller first cut and bale ‘bits and bobs’ later as demand and growth dictate.

Tom’s observations have been borne out by earthworm counts which have been found to be twice those expected, attributed to rotational and latterly mob grazing and declining ploughing and inputs.

“It’s not simply the worms we want to encourage – which are both indicators and creators of healthy soil – but we also want to farm with wildlife and the environment in mind,” he says. “Better soil quality and taller swards are definitely providing more wildlife habitats to help us achieve this.”

Worms and other practices are also helping improve the farm’s drainage although the sandy loam soils are a bonus in such a high rainfall area. 

“We get 38 inches of rain each year but we have definitely noticed the farm has become drier,” says Tom.

However, even more gratifying has been the performance of stock which are achieving higher daily liveweight gains under the new regime.

“Beef cattle seem to do better on this type of pasture,” he says. “It seems to hold in them better and dung quality is good. In fact, we’ve had our best weight gains on some of our permanent pasture, which we think must be due to the diversity of grass species.”

As a result, any reseeds now carried out are with mixed leys including perennial ryegrass, plantain, chicory, red and white clover and herbs.

“I suppose this is a more regenerative way of farming with higher entry covers and residuals, but I don’t really want to give it a label,” says Tom. “We have just started to experiment and find a way that works for us which has been enormously helped by the data from GrassCheckGB. For us it has got to be profitable, environmental and enjoyable but since no two seasons are the same it will take us a few years to find the sweet spot.”      

GrassCheckGB is a collaborative grass monitoring project run by CIEL (Centre for Innovation in Livestock), the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Rothamsted Research, supported by AHDB Beef & Lamb, QMS, HCC, Germinal GB, Handley Enterprises, Sciantec Analytical, Waitrose & Partners, Datamars Livestock and Corteva. 

Over the last two years, the project has shown how changeable growth rates can be depending on weather and soil conditions. This highlights the importance of regular measurements to monitor growth rates across your own grazing platform to make the best use of grass throughout the season. GrassCheckGB bulletins will be back in Farmers Guardian this March, with weekly updates on regional growth rates and weather conditions recorded on farms across the country.