Forage mix avoids need to house finishing cattle

Behaving like a dairy farmer and strip grazing land 365 days a year may seem like a puzzling concept, but for beef farmer Michael Shannon it is the only way he can see possible to make a profit.

Farming at Thankerton Camp Farm, Biggar, Mr Shannon operates a complete forage-based system using a rotational grazing paddock system, with cattle going onto kale in mid-October, a system he adopted after visiting farms in New Zealand.

“Lots of NZ beef farmers behave like dairy farmers, strip grazing grass during summer and using brassicas to winter stock. I have tried to work out how to make money from feeding concentrates, but it isn’t a viable option.”

Mr Shannon buys in stores at 12 months old and uses a rigid, but cheaply done paddock system. “When we were setting up our online meat business, Damn Delicious, I wanted to have a unique selling point. Research has shown feeding cattle on forage all year means the meat is higher in omega 3, a healthy fat thought to have positive effects on human health such as reducing heart disease,” he says.

But to operate a forage system you need efficient grassland management to get maximum production from grazed grass, says Mr Shannon. “First, you need high quality swards and we operate a short rotation, trying to reseed fields every six years. Animals go into the pasture when grass is at 10-15cm tall, they want nice leafy grass as this is what gives performance. Cattle are only in the paddock one day and then the fence is moved to create the next paddock.”

Each paddock is 0.52ha (1.3 acres), although they are not fixed paddocks. “It costs £48/acre to put in extra electric fencing and water troughs, but after four years this has already paid off.

“The grasses we use are high sugar diploid mixtures, giving a denser, higher quality sward specifically suited to grazing. Red and white clover is also used, which is high in protein, and fixes a lot of nitrogen. But increasing stocking rates by increasing fertiliser doesn’t necessarily mean you make more money, we aim our stocking rate at 5.4 cattle/ha (2.18/acre) at the peak growing season.”

Mr Shannon believes the most important figure is the amount of money each animal is making a day. “Profit a day is the key. It takes just over a year to finish the cattle and the cost is averaging 30p an animal a day, including inputs from fertiliser.

“But because we are weather dependent for grass growth in summer this can be a difficult system to manage and you have got to be willing to vary stocking rates and rotation length to keep grass quality high.”

But the biggest problem facing Mr Shannon is the supply of store cattle. “Genetics is my biggest challenge. I need a certain type of cattle that will grow and fatten just on a forage system, as cattle used to a high concentrate diet tend to loose condition. We use native breeds such as Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford, but the stocks aren’t always there.

“Having a forage-based system is as much about being flexible than anything else and you have got to keep all options open, and buying in stores allows me to be flexible. When grass growth is poor or kale fails I can sell some animals. However, when I have surplus grass I can buy in more stock. We also take paddocks out of the system when grass growth outstrips demand and make silage for feeding with the kale.”

And cattle numbers do fluctuate with the seasons at Thankerton Camp. During peak grass growth during the summer Mr Shannon aims to have 1000-1200kg liveweight an acre, reducing to 700kg live weight an acre in the autumn. “Grazing the grass too tight means you don’t get the regrowth, so it is all about getting the right balance,” he says.

“This year in mid-summer bullocks at 20 months old averaged 1.53kg daily live weight gain,” adds Mr Shannon.