Changing grassland management to boost returns from livestock is the name of the game at a recently appointed QMS monitor farm in Caithness.


Two new mixes, which will include high-yield red clover, are being used on a reseed at Westfield Farm. The experiment is one management change being implemented by John MacKenzie and his step-son, Gary Elder, who run the 220-ha holding, west of Thurso.

More than 60 farmers attended this month’s second on-farm meeting to update progress and consider new actions. Most of the attention was on how land earmarked for grazing can be improved.

Guest speaker Michael Shannon, who farms in Lanarkshire, said it was essential producers settle on a mix which is suited to their regime – whether the grass is for grazing or cropping, or a mixture of the two.

He highlighted the potential of red clover, which he said can produce annual yields of 15t/ha.

And at this time of year, grass should be intensely grazed to make the use of its most productive period and delay the onset of seed-heads.

“I’d say you should graze everything just now as bare as you can manage it – adjustments in the way grassland is managed can undoubtedly result in increased returns.

“You can dramatically increase your liveweight gains by more regular rotations. The productivity of older leys drops every year. I wouldn’t want any leys on my farm older than six years – new grass is definitely the way forward.”

Apart from increased weight gain, he said, better quality pasture could also increase the amount of stock a field could support.

Mr MacKenzie, in consultation with the monitor farm community group, has been inspired by Mr Shannon’s advice to review the grassland regime at Westfield.

For the planned reseed of a field in the next couple of weeks, he and Mr Elder have resolved to try out two different seed mixes, which will include red clover.

“We’ll carry out trials and this time next year; we’ll be able to look at the difference and see whether one worked and one didn’t,” he said. The pair have this year, for the first time, stopped producing cereal crops and straw, turning all the land over to grazing.

The farmers are also reviewing their reseeding cycle and their system of moving cattle between fields.

The meeting also focused on ways of reducing the holding’s current long calving period. The drawn-out calving period from the end of February to mid-June puts an obvious strain on the farmers but also causes problems when it comes to marketing.

A start on reducing this period is being made by selecting the bigger and stronger animals among the herd’s 60 replacement heifers to calve this year. The others will be left until next February when they will calve at the same time as the cows.

Mr Elder said that continuing this process over the next three years would lead to all the female stock calving earlier in the year.

He said: “Having the calving over a shorter period makes them easier to handle and easier to market as they are much the same weight.”

Other farmers in the area are very interested in the results as they assess whether their holdings could benefit from similar changes.

The next on-farm meeting is planned for 14 July.


• For further information on the monitor farm programme, including meeting reports, go to the QMS site.