11 September 1998

Grazing method cuts costs

Good grassland management

pays for one Warks producer.

James Garner reports

A METHODICAL approach to grassland management and winter feeding means cheaper feed costs for one Warks beef producer.

John Axon runs 55 spring calving Hereford x Friesian sucklers put to a Charolais bull at Park Farm, Henley-in-Arden.

Until 1996, Mr Axon finished bulls intensively, but concerns over securing a regular outlet resulted in the decision to castrate male calves, finishing both heifers and steers off grass from late summer onwards.

The grassland consists of 54ha (133 acres) split into 17 paddocks, allowing a rotational grazing system and efficient use of his five-year leys.

Mr Axon has no staff and so requires an easy management system and low costs. This means he relies heavily on grass.

"Grassland management is important, as I need low winter feed costs and to ensure enough silage of a high enough quality is made," he adds.

Ensuring high quality silage means fields which will produce the best crop are selected in spring and top dressed. "I close 55 acres to give at least 500 bales for winter feeding," he says.

"Compound fertiliser is applied to silage ground at 75kg/ha, and we apply a further 37kg/ha immediately after silage has been cut to boost regrowth.

"Leys have clover in them, and I try to preserve this by applying less nitrogen to grazing, usually about 50kg/ha," he adds.

Housing restrictions mean only 130 animals can be kept over winter, and so Mr Axon limits himself to this number throughout the year. This means the farm is often understocked during summer when grass growth is rapid.

"When this happens I make hay to tidy things up and keep on top of it. I made 200 round bales this summer, which I feed when short of grass.

"Newly calved cows are turned out in mid-April and have access to the best grass. That is because calves are growing fast and they need as much milk as possible to meet growth requirements," Mr Axon explains.

Heifers and steers graze separately, and are moved to new paddocks every two weeks. "I am careful about allotting paddocks early on because fields are shut up for silage and I do not want to run short of grass. In the summer, cattle spend a week in a paddock, then move on. Younger stock need shorter swards to grow well.

Move cattle

"Flexibility is important. For example, when grass is short in field six more quickly than we expect, we move cattle to field seven earlier. This allows field six to recover more rapidly and the animals to grow on," he says.

"We begin selling heifers in late August. All animals are finished off grass before housing in December, weather permitting."

All finished stock is sold dead-weight to ABP, Ellesmere. Heifers average 250-260kg carcass weight and steers 330-350kg, with average grades of R4L.

While the previous years progeny are finishing at Park Farm, the current years calves are weaned at housing and split into heifers and steers. "This helps management and I can plan winter feeding accurately," says Mr Axon.

Heifers have free access to silage and straw plus 1kg of 14% protein concentrate for two months. Overwintering costs are £9/head for concentrate, with silage consumption estimated at six bales a heifer.

But this seasons overwintering costs may be lower as Mr Axon plans to cut concentrate from heifer rations. "Hopefully I can finish them over a longer period and at lower fat grades, providing silage quality is good enough."

Steers are reckoned to consume about seven bales of silage a head and additional concentrate, adding a further £9 a head to costs.

Cows are offered silage and straw to appetite, which means their feed costs are low. "Cows eat the remaining silage, about 250 bales, plus straw to appetite. Cows do not become too fat, and I do not have any calving problems.

"It is important to manage everything efficiently to ensure winter feeding is right and costs are kept to a minimum. Each silage bag is marked with coloured tape which represents each field – when it was cut and its analysis.

"With this system I know they are getting the right quality feed," he adds.

"I make the silage myself which means I never wait for a contractor to be available and all operations are timely, but I realise this is costly and may not be suitable for a lot of farms."

Making the most of grass means cheap feed for Warks producer John Axon.