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TIPS: How hill farmers are improving upland ground and stock rates

Electric fencing and cows
Fencing in-bye land and rougher hill ground has enabled Scottish beef and sheep producer Alex Brewster to lift stock units by 51.2 and give up 40ha of rented ground.
Since switching from set stocking to rotational grazing about seven years ago lamb weights have lifted by 3kg a head, but driven by his Nuffield Scholarship, recent improvements have focused on building soil organic matter and improving pH through holistic management.
This sees cattle at Rotmell Farm near Dunkeld, Perthshire, mob-grazed in groups of 150-180 ahead of sheep and fields rested for 30-90 days. 
“We now know through modern science that pH is driven by the health of the soil microbes and your cowpats have a fairly high pH, so you can lift it using cows.
“I’m using the cow to feed the ewe. The cows break up the rougher pasture and, by opening up the sward and allowing time for regrowth, this produces better feed for the sheep.”

Farm facts: Rotmell Farm

Alex Brewster
Alex Brewster
  • 190 spring calving Angus cows
  • Farming 990ha, tenanted
  • Contract farming 3,200ha at the Lude Estate
  • Manage a deer operation at Meikle Findowie Estate
  • 80cm of rain annually, on average
  • 400-1,300ft above sea level (120-400m)
  • 670 ewes (switching to a composite breed of Cheviot x AberFace (Aberfield x BlackFace)
  • 4,000 organic laying hens
  • In a joint venture with Robert Flemming in SW Scotland, who takes store cattle through to finishing. In return, Mr Brewster winters Mr Flemming’s cows

Infrastructure

To facilitate this, in-bye pasture has been split into 10ha blocks and further sub-divided into 2.5ha paddocks using electric fencing.
When Mr Brewster began improving upland ground seven years ago he found it difficult to source equipment, and his company, Powered Pasture, was born out of a necessity to import higher quality electric fencing components, with Rotmell becoming a test bed for solutions.
Electric fencing has been connected to stone walls using insulated irons drilled into stone. Mains electricity is used to power the fences ,along with two 50 joule energisers, with a third being installed later this year.
He uses:
  • Powered Pasture solar strip grazing kit
  • Four-strand Taragate
  • Electric fence remote controller with a Gallagher mains energiser.
A gravity-fed hill loch located at 1,300ft keeps header tanks replenished, and 4km of 50ml medium-density polythene pipes (MDPE), which have been dug into the ground to prevent freezing, supply mobile troughs.

Benefits

Mr Brewster’s ethos is to “optimise the performance of the system” and build farm resilience.
“We can’t control the weather, but we can manage how resilient we make the farm. I’m trying to improve root depth to give me more access to soil moisture and build longer diverse covers to capture run-off,” he says
Root depth of in-bye pasture now extends to three-quarters of a meter below ground, which Mr Brewster says is a sign of improving humus.
Soil organic matter has also improved along with plant diversity – around 20 species are now evident including timothy, ryegrass, plantain, chicory, birdsfoot trefoil and cocksfoot.
“As we provide more rest, even in rougher country, the plants express themselves more.”
This is paying dividends in better animal performance. Growth rates of youngstock have lifted and, because stock classes are rotated to take account of parasite lifecycles, disease burdens have been reduced.
“We used to have a coccidiosis challenge annually in lambs, but we have not had that for three years now,” he says.

Challenges and lessons learned

On average the farm receives 80cm of rainfall annually, but the biggest challenge at Rotmell is soil temperature, notes Mr Brewster.
He is trying to combat this, by going into the winter carrying higher grass covers to give the soil essential frost protection which accelerates spring regrowth.
The paddock layouts have evolved over time, as Mr Brewster admits he did not allow enough flexibility in the initial build back in 2014.
These were redesigned by year two. Initial pipes used for water were also too small to cope with increased stock demands.
“The lesson learned from that was huge. We didn’t anticipate the uplift in stocking numbers we were going to get. You have to be quite flexible,” he advises.

Farmer tips

  • Ensure the system is flexible so it can be easily moved
  • Be prepared to make some educated mistakes
  • Start off with the most convenient block of land you have
  • Subdivide that first, play with the system and see how stock respond

The future

He is now beginning to improve a 500ha block of hill ground by splitting it into 12-16ha blocks. The aim is to temporarily subdivide these into 0.25ha paddocks potentially and move stock on eight-hour shifts.
This will allow better optimisation of grazing.

Rhydian Glyn, Rhiwgriafol Farm, Machynlleth

Subdividing land and careful correction of soil has allowed upland farmer Rhidian Glyn to increase stock numbers and reduce concentrates fed.
Farming new entrant Rhidian Glyn and his wife Elen took on Rhiwgriafol Farm, Machynlleth, in 2014 and aim to maximise grass utilisation and minimise sward damage through infrastructure and planning.

Farm Facts: Rhydian Glyn

Cows grazing
Rhydian Glyn rotationally grazes the heifers
  • 215ha on a Farm Business Tenancy (FBT)
  • Another 73ha on a grazing licence
  • 850 Welsh Mountain ewes and 250 replacements, crossed with Aberfield rams
  • 250 Kiwicross heifers reared for 20 months
“It was quite well maintained previously, but set stocked. Just by subdividing some of the bigger parcels of land, we have improved productivity,” Mr Glyn explains.
Initially the farm was stocked with only sheep, but the increased grass growth has been key to enabling Mr Glyn to pursue a cattle-rearing enterprise.
He now takes batches of Kiwicross heifers and rears them to 20 months.
Division and infrastructure“We rotationally graze the bulling heifers, and the sheep to a certain extent, but less religiously,” says Mr Glyn, who has worked with James Daniels of Precision Grazing to create paddock grazing systems.
Two 13ha blocks and one 11ha block have been split into 1ha paddocks. The aim is to put heifers into paddocks when grass measures 2800 kg DM/ha and get them to graze to a residual of 1500 kg DM/ha.
“We split the first 32 acre (13ha) block in a project with Farming Connect and the improvement and extra stock that ground could carry was unbelievable, so that’s I why I have continued,” Mr Glyn explains.
“It’s hard to quantify the benefits, but the first year we fed 40t of concentrate to the sheep and last year we fed nine tonnes.”
In 2019, 220 ewes that were rearing 150% of lambs were grazed on the 11ha block through until weaning. At present, one 13ha grazing block has a mob of 110 heifers on it, while the 11ha unit holds 78 heifers.
Mr Glyn has laid a network of alkothene pipe to ensure water availability for each paddock and uses:
  • Semi-permanent fencing from Kiwitech UK
  • A mixture of battery and solar-powered PEL fencers
  • Microtroughs from Kiwitech UK
  • AgriWebb software’s app to measure and record grass growth.
ReseedingTypically, 10% of the in-bye ground on the farm is reseeded each year, but there are some older swards that have been improved enough by grazing and, therefore, don’t require reseeding.
“We can’t touch the hill, but there are 220 acres (89ha) of lower ground and every year we put 10% of that to swedes before returning to grass,” Mr Glyn says. “But we’ve got leys that are 35 years old and still productive.”
The sward is sprayed off before being direct drilled with the swedes. The following year the ground will be rotavated to create a seedbed before a grass mix is broadcast.
Because only 10% of the farm is reseeded each year, Mr Glyn opts for a long-term mix, Preference, from Field Options.
“I’ve been playing about with herbal leys, adding chicory and plantain to the grass mix. Last year, we did four acres (1.6ha) and it worked well for finishing lambs, so this year I’ll be doing 20acres (8ha),” he says.
Grass is fertilised early with 40kg nitrogen/ha applied around the end of February into early March, which allows for a second application after the first round of grazing.
And every year, a third of the farm is soil sampled, so phosphate, potassium and lime can be applied accordingly.

 Farmer’s tips

  • Soil sample regularly and use Ps and Ks where they’re needed
  • Soil pH is so important – we use 100t of lime each year getting it right. Test pH and use lime where it’s needed
  • By turning out early, you can stimulate the grass to grow, but if you’re wanting to turn out early, make sure you rest the ground. We turn out early February so we have to keep grass free from stock from around October.

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