Livestock farmers in less favoured areas are at a crossroads after CAP reform, according to ADAS Pwllpeiran researcher Owen Davies.
“They have to decide whether to go down the optimised production or agri-environment routes,” Mr Davies, manager of ADAS Pwllpeiran, told a seminar at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research’s upland facility in south Powys.
“Management has to be focused, so the middle road is not an option for businesses to be sustainable. At the end of the day the policy chosen must bring economic stability.”
Farmers needed to sit down, examine their objectives and understand the implications of their chosen way ahead. Being able to bank a single farm payment could make the agri-environment route look attractive, but producers should ask how long the cheques would continue to arrive.
When production was the primary focus, emphasis must be on quality stock, but there was nothing wrong with topping up income with some environmental payments, he added.
However, farmers who decided to live on SFP and rewards for using environmentally friendly production systems may not need quality livestock, though they would have to use grazing systems aimed at bringing environmental gains.
They needed an understanding of factors that influenced the way livestock selected and consumed herbage on semi-natural rough grazing to ensure there was a positive environmental impact.
“It means reviving environmental management skills that died with your grandparents and not necessarily new technology. If you are going to go into an agri-environment scheme make sure you do your sums.”
Jim Vale, technical manager of Bronydd Mawr, explained that his team was trying to develop the optimal mixed grazing system for semi-natural rough grazing using ewes and lambs and Belted Galloway cows and calves.
The DEFRA funded work aimed to use and control Molinia (purple moor grass), which had little grazing value for most of the year, but without eradicating it and allowing in other poor quality species.
Preliminary work using Welsh Black steers indicated daily gains of 0.8kg a head a day could be achieved between May and the end of August, as well as compensatory growth when cattle returned to improved pasture.
The new five-year study includes monitoring cow grazing behaviour and reproductive performance, the impact on calf carcass quality and system economics.
Using rough grazing also freed better land to make winter forage. But Paul Matthews, who produces organic lamb and beef close to Bronydd Mawr, argued that providing the feed needed to get compensatory growth late in the year could be expensive and conserving grass rather than grazing it would add to production costs.
“It is all very well to have managed rough grazing, but producers still need healthy animals and healthy profits,” Mr Matthews insisted.
IGER researcher Dr Mariecia Fraser said most habitat degradation was caused by overgrazing with sheep, but there was evidence that simply cutting stocking rates did not reverse the process.
“There are benefits to be made from incorporating cattle into the system,” Dr Fraser said. “They are less selective grazers, have the ability to remove low digestibility biomass and their trampling opens up dense swards.
“Mixed grazing improves sward quality, reduces parasite problems and improves post-weaning lamb growth.”
Barbara McLean, a senior ADAS researcher based at ADAS Pwllpeiran, cautioned that controlled grazing of animals on environmental conservation areas could require investment in extra fencing costs, the provision of water and handling facilities.
“You have to think about possible transport charges, including pre-movement TB testing, animal welfare, labour requirements and wintering costs,” she said.
“We compared three sheep wintering alternatives, home wintering on grass, housing from October and tacking away. All ewes were housed for the last six weeks before lambing.
“It cost 29.15 a ewe to winter away and then house for lambing, 18.15 to house right through and 8.08 to winter partly on grass. There was little difference in lamb performance.”
Housing and feeding cattle over winter could be expensive. At Pwllpeiran grazing 200ha (495 acres) of unimproved hill land with sheep stocked at 0.66 ewes/ha all year and cows stocked at 0.75/ha in summer generated a higher labour output than maximising grazing at 2.1 ewes/ha. But stocking with 0.25 ewes/ha plus 0.2cows/ha only in summer produced the best net margin of almost 16,000.