Strategic reseeding lifts grass yields on upland farm

A carefully considered reseeding strategy is helping to lift yields of grass on a drought-prone upland farm in Wales.

Marc Jones is both a livestock farmer and grassland consultant and in these roles, he is perfectly placed to put his own advice on grassland management into practice. Having also joined GrassCheckGB, he is able to keep a close watch on both the quality and quantity of grass he grows on his 500-acre (202ha) farm.

Farming beef and sheep at Trefnant Hall in Berriew, near Welshpool, on an upland farm which runs from 600 to 1,100 feet above sea level, the farm’s south facing slopes and shaley banks present a particular challenge when high yields of grass are sought for the grass-based beef finishing system. 

But one way the farm’s tendency to dry out has been addressed is through a tailored approach to reseeding which helps preserve the sward in times of drought. This includes the use of a succession of carefully selected grass varieties and species through the swards’ life, which he has fine-tuned over the years through a process of trial and error.

Around 60 acres (24ha) of the farm is also down to fodder beet, using a system of double cropping, which provides an entry of 30 acres (12ha) every year into reseeded grass. 

“For fodder beet, we aim to use the free-draining fields that are flat, but we don’t have many of those,” says Mr Jones. “We put a field into fodder beet for two years which means we have 30 acres of our better land to reseed with grass after the crop every spring.”

The fodder beet is strip-grazed and offered with ring feeders of baled silage over winter until mid-March, when the fields are ploughed and prepared for reseeding.

Some 350 head of Angus cross dairy beef cattle graze the fodder beet, through a system which involves buying all 350 as calves aged two to three weeks every October and managing them as one batch until finishing at up to 24 months.

With 700 head on the farm to be supported at any one time, their first winter will be spent housed, initially on milk and concentrates before moving on to clamp silage. For their second winter they’re on the root crop with baled silage. However, they are all finished on nothing other than grazed grass through the following spring and summer, and sold through the Foyle Food Group on a contract for Tesco Finest Aberdeen Angus beef.

This places a great importance on the quality, quantity and reliability of the farm’s swards which are managed with care and precision at every stage.

Reseeding after fodder beet begins with ploughing and working the land, and using a seed mix which will get off to a good start if soils become dry.

“We aim for a quick-growing ley, so opt for a cutting mix which includes Italian ryegrass, hybrid ryegrass and red clover, all from the recommended list, as we find this is quick to establish and smothers the weeds.

“However, two years later we will rejuvenate the sward by direct drilling a herbal ley which will last for a further four or five years on our drought-prone fields,” he says. “This is done in autumn or late summer, if moisture permits.”

Species in this over-sown mix include chicory, plantain, birdsfoot trefoil, yarrow, timothy, cocksfoot, perennial ryegrass and white clover.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the farm which is not in the fodder beet rotation will be reseeded at a rate of about 20 acres [8ha] each year. This takes place in autumn rather than spring when a similar herbal ley mix is used. This means around 210 acres (85ha) is reseeded every seven years on the fodder beet rotation and the remaining ground every 12-13 years.

Ben Wixey from grass and forage specialists, Germinal, explains why establishment can be better in the autumn than spring.

He says: “Germination of weeds is less in autumn than in spring, and the ground temperature is higher. There’s also more chance of moisture as you go into winter and daylength is longer, so everything is positive for the grass to establish.

“If the ground is tricky, as some of it is on this farm, the quicker the plant is up, the more likely it is to get away.”

The system clearly meets with success on Mr Jones’s farm, as, despite the constraints imposed by altitude and thin soils, the average annual grass yield is 12 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.

However, measuring and analysing grass weekly, through his participation in GrassCheckGB, has identified that grass yields are already 1.5t DM/ha lower this year because of the late spring.

“Because of this, we decided to sell 80 cattle as stores in early spring, which we would normally take through to finishing,” he says.

First cut silage was also later than usual, coming off in late June rather than at the end of May. Usually aiming for a metabolisable energy of 11.5-12MJ/kg DM, this year it was lower as grass had gone to seed.

“We would normally aim to cut before you can see a seed head, but the grass on our shaley, south facing banks is easily stressed and goes to seed quickly, especially in June,” he says.

Rotational grazing takes place in groups of 350 head with plate metering weekly and all grass covers entered into AgriNet grassland management software.

“The older group of 350 head will go on to about five acres where they’ll remain for two days, moving on when they have cleared the field,” he says.

Entry covers are generally 8-10cm (3,000kg DM/ha) and residuals are targeted at 4cm (1,500kg DM/ha).

“Getting the stock to graze down hard is the secret and sometimes we need to pre-mow as grass becomes stalky,” he says. “As the season progresses, we find the cattle won’t graze the stale patches but will eat it better when it’s mown, which we may do once a season in each field.”

The younger group follows a similar grazing rotation to the older cattle although paddock size is marginally smaller, at 3-4 acres. With most of the farm’s fields close to 10 acres, each one is split in two with an electric fence down the middle.

Bale silage is made as the grass gets away and already this season 350 bales have been made. 

“We use bale silage as a management tools and hope to take 200 more bales, but that depends on the season,” he says.

Performance of cattle at grass is the ultimate measure of grazing and grassland management and this proves a convincing endorsement.

The younger group is averaging liveweight gain of 0.8kg/day while the older group (20-21 months) grows at 1.4kg/day. Both growth rates are achieved off summer grass alone, with finished cattle generally sold by September or October. Deadweights are on target at 300kg and grades are O+ 3 and 4L.

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, and supported by AHDB Beef & Lamb, QMS, HCC, Germinal GB, Handley Enterprises, Sciantec Analytical, Waitrose & Partners and Datamars Livestock.