Precision grassland management and leader-follower grazing have turned the financial fortunes of a Scottish upland farm.

Beef and sheep producer, John Ritchie, has radically changed the way he manages grass and as a result, feels his Scottish upland farm is more financially resilient to face subsidy cuts which may be ahead.  

However, he admits he ‘got there the hard way’, over seven years of trial and error, but is now prepared to say: “I think we are nearly getting it right.”

John Ritchie

Farming at Montalt Farm in the Ochill Hills, not far from Perth, he says the seeds of change were sown when he joined a grazing discussion group, hosted by Quality Meat Scotland.

“Here, we were lucky enough to meet farmers who were prepared to share their knowledge and the finances of their farms,” he says.

At the heart of the system he’s developed for the farm – which stretches over 250ha (618 acres) including 125ha (309 acres) of hill and the remainder improved pasture – is leader-follower grazing.

“Getting the right balance of ewes and suckler cows is everything,” he says. “In our early years of rotational grazing we responded to the higher output of grass by increasing our ewe numbers but with hindsight, I don’t think that’s what we should have done.

“Ewes and lambs don’t like the pressure of rotational grazing, especially in summer when the grass is stemmy. We were trying to get residuals down to 1,500-1,600kg DM/ha, but our ewes were getting leaner and lamb performance was falling off a cliff.”

It was with this recognition that Mr Ritchie decided to increase his cattle numbers and cut back his ewes from 750 to 650. And with Salers-cross suckler cows now up from 70 to 100, he thinks he has the balance about right.

“We have sub-divided the farm into 1.2ha [3 acre] paddocks which suit a mob size of around 200 ewes and their twin lambs for two days. These are followed by 20-25 cows and calves to tidy up for two further days,” he says.

“Depending on the time of year, we go in at covers of 2,500-2,700kg DM/ha, so there’s no pressure on the sheep and they get to pick the best of the leaf and clover.

“We also believe this reduces their parasite burden as worm larvae are at the bottom of the sward,” he says. “We certainly had less need for worming last summer although that may not be a fair comparison as it was reasonably dry, and we’d like to see this repeated in different weather conditions.” 

Playing to the strengths of the sheep as selective grazers, he also feels the cows fare well when following in behind.

“Cows have a high demand for forage but are less selective, and we’ve seen no effect on their performance by getting them to graze residuals down quite hard,” he says. 

This is confirmed by numerous performance parameters, including an average liveweight gain of 1.3kg/day in calves to weaning at 200 days, and in-calf rates in the nine-week bulling period of 98.5 per cent.

All of this comes as little surprise in the face of the quality and quantity of grass produced, which weighed in at 8.5t DM/ha in 2019, dropping to 7.5t DM/ha in a much drier 2020.

This was achieved with the application of 70kg of nitrogen/hectare on silage ground.  Grazing ground has only used 3t of nitrogen in the last 3 year instead of blanket spreading 25kg/hectare of nitrogen across the whole platform which was standard practice before introducing rotational grazing.

“Our nitrogen use has dropped by around 60% across the whole farm, although we do put on 120t of lime every year,” he says.

Quality is impressive for a farm whose altitude ranges from 850 to 1,000 feet, with the first analysis this season, of ‘winter saved’ grass, taken on 1 March, having a metabolisable energy (ME) of 11.5MJ/kg DM, 20 per cent crude protein (CP) and 25 per cent dry matter (DM). 

Average farm covers on this date were 1,525kg DM/ha, somewhat lower, after a cold and snowy winter, than when they were closed last autumn.

Quality and covers have since increased, with figures on 1 April of ME 11.6MJ/kg DM, 24 per cent CP and 27 per cent DM at an average farm cover of 1,570kg DM/ha.

“We do a grass budget at this time and aim for 1,600kg DM/ha on 1 April, so we’re a little behind,” says Mr Ritchie. 

The annual cycle

Achieving quality grass comes through strict adherence to grazing principles throughout the annual cycle which begins in mid-March when ewes are moved off silage and on to the first rotation.

“The ewes are rotated in day shifts at this time as we find that if we can get everything grazed in March it stimulates growth,” he says.

However, they return to set-stocking at 10 ewes/hectare (4/ac) from 8-9 April in preparation for lambing from 12 April.

“The electric fence is dropped to reduce any pressure and increase their shelter during the lambing period,” he says.

A week after lambing is complete, rotational grazing resumes in the second week of May, with ewes grouped into mobs with singles or twins. From this point, the cattle, now calved, will follow behind.

“The length of time on each block can vary as grass growth can go from famine to feast – from 10kg to 80kg DM/day within the space of a week,” he says.

Lambs are weaned on 26-27 July and ewes are body condition scored, with those over BCS3 moved on to the hill for six weeks.

This leaves the thinner ewes or cattle to follow the lambs, which are mainly sold fat off grass in October, with the remainder supplemented on forage rape and mostly sold by December. 

Once ewes are back from the hill and cattle moved away on to deferred hill grazing and silage/forage rape, there’s a final round of grazing for the ewes, which incorporates tupping from 16 November.

Paddocks start to be closed from the third week of October, with the whole platform shut by 28 Dec at an average target cover of 1,650kg DM/ha. By opening fields the following season in the same order, everything will be rested for 120 days.

Nutritional success can be judged by last year’s scanning rate of 186 per cent, which is somewhat higher than the target of 175 per cent, intended to avoid triplets.

“This system might not suit everyone but we find it works for us,” he says. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago what I did with grass, I’d have thrown cows and sheep into a field and hoped for the best. Now, we have gone from being subsidy dependent to having a better financial resilience, and our grass management has played a fundamental part in this.”

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


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