Beef producer, Michael Shannon, admits he struggled to make a profit from beef before he saw the light and changed his farming system.

When Michael Shannon was farming ‘in the conventional way’, he admits he found it hard to make a profit from beef. And then he saw the light.

Michael Shannon

“I had an epiphany!” he says. “In fact, I had two.”

He refers to a trip to New Zealand in the 1990s, when he was introduced to two concepts which would revolutionise the production system and lift the profits on his Scottish farm.

Returning home to his 101ha (250 acre) holding at Thankerton Camp Farm near Biggar in Lanarkshire, he put his findings into practice.

“The first was placing silage bales down rows of kale for strip-grazing through the winter. This wiped out our winter feed costs,” he says.

“But the game changer was the realisation that a paddock grazing system for beef could achieve summer growth rates from grazing of 2kg/head/day,” he says.

It is these two practices which now form the mainstay of the system and support a throughput of 200 head a year, using the farm’s 81ha (200 acres) of ‘farmable’ land. In so doing, the enterprise has cut out the use of concentrates altogether.

With the majority of stock sold through the farm’s shop, Damn Delicious, and also online, all beef can be marketed as ‘grass and forage fed’, and the business benefits from the credibility this brings.

However, despite the added value, the farm and shop are costed separately, with all beef sold to the shop at the QMS average steer price.

“Quite frankly, before we changed system, I could not get the sums to add up,” says Mr Shannon. “Now I’d say that, although the subsidy is important, I could survive without it.”

The system

The system he has fine-tuned over the past 20 years is built around the purchase of 12-14-month-old store cattle at around 400kg, through spring, summer and autumn. Most are of Angus breeding – importantly all those destined for the farm shop – and they are kept on the farm for roughly a year.

Maintaining grazed grass at the highest possible quality is essential to success. And the most recent analysis (20 July), obtained as part of the farm’s participation in GrassCheckGB, showed this can be achieved, with the right management, even in the face of hot and dry conditions, which tend to push grass to seed.

This sample weighed in at a dry matter of 22.6 per cent, metabolisable energy of 12.4MJ/kg DM, crude protein of 15.2 per cent and sugar of 24.3 per cent.

“High sugar is always my target as this both drives rumen microbial protein, and cuts the amount of nitrogen wasted through faeces and urine,” says Mr Shannon, whose grass sugars and ME are consistently amongst the highest in the GrassCheckGB group.

Maintaining this quality depends on strict adherence to paddock grazing which is optimised at a 21-day rotation but varies from 18 to 26 days through the season.

The grazing platform is allocated on the basis of 1,200kg liveweight/acre, such that 21 paddocks, each of one acre, will support 25,200kg of liveweight, or 63 head if they weigh 400kg. This loosely means that each one-acre paddock supports 63 head for one day, although this will vary as grass growth and stock weights change.

Target entry covers are currently 2,500-2,700kg DM/ha and residuals are 1,600-1,700kg DM/ha, although can be as low as 1,500kg DM/ha in spring.

“The grass is hard to manage now because drought is playing a part and growth has really declined,” he says. “Some of our paddocks are now going backwards – they measure less this week than last.”

Regular reseeds are also integral to the maintenance of grass quality and Aber HSG3 is the favoured mix, comprising high sugar diploid perennial ryegrasses which have the highest ratings for grazing quality and yield on the Recommended List.

“No grass on the farm is more than seven years old,” he says.

Insisting all swards are designed specifically for grazing, he says: “Don’t use the phrase ‘dual purpose’ or I will hunt you down! A dual purpose is just a hybrid – like a car-cross-tractor, neither as good as one nor the other!”

However, one hybrid that’s highly favoured is Swift, the interspecies rape x kale which provides the stock with high energy and protein through winter, budgeted from 14 October until 14 April.

A close watch is kept on liveweight gain through this period, when 0.5kg/day is considered realistic and acceptable. 

“All cattle are electronically tagged with Datamars Z Tags as they arrive on the farm, so they can be easily weighed with our Tru-Test EID compatible weigh scale to regularly monitor weight gain,” he says. “By maintaining growth of 0.5kg/day over winter they will hit the spring to get maximum performance from grass, to reach our target average through the entire year of 1kg/day.”

Other benefits of the brassica system are the lack of serious poaching or run-off from the field as the fence is moved daily, and the ring feeder is moved to a new bale each day.

“The animals just do enough to plough the field for me,” says Mr Shannon, remarking that the ground will be ready for reseeding with grass, using min-till, in spring.

Assisted in this by the farm’s well-drained, sand and gravelly soils, he remarks: “You could run this system across a considerable part of the UK, but I could not do it on clay.”

Aiming for the ‘leafiest, best quality grass, to make the cattle fly in summer’, he says this will come from his high sugar grasses with the addition of white clover which is added to the seed mix.

“I believe in fixing atmospheric nitrogen but I also want clover as a source of protein,” he says. 

Also striving to grow red clover too, he has struggled to achieve persistence in the sward.

“I want to win the red clover battle as I want it for its higher protein,” he says. “However, we struggle to get it to persist in the grazing sward, so maybe we’ll have to sow some swards which are specifically for cutting in future.”

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.