Farmers Weekly Awards 2023: Grassland Manager of the Year finalists

A passion to impart grassland wisdom to fellow farmers and improve business resilience is driving this year’s three Farmers Weekly Grassland Manager finalists to maximise grazed grass and experiment with mixed species leys.

See also: FW Awards 2023: Contractor of the Year finalists

The judges:

The judging team visited each of the finalists for a three-hour interview and farm tour.

  • Ian Boyd, last year’s winner
  • Emily Grant, independent sheep and beef consultant
  • Rhian Price, Farmers Weekly judge

The finalists:

James Henderson

Seafields Farm, County Down

John Ritchie

Montalt Farm, Perthshire

James Waterhouse

Fourth Milestone Farm, North Yorkshire

James Henderson

Seafields Farm, County Down

Farm facts

  • 60ha (148 acres)
  • Finishing 90 dairy-beef heifers annually
  • Buying British Blue calves and finishing them off grass by 24 months
  • Lambing 250 Rouge cross Texel ewes and 50 ewe lamb replacements put to Primera tups
  • Closed flock rotating between Texel and Rouge to breed replacements

Making marginal gains in every area of his business has added up to huge rewards for James Henderson who has lifted liveweight growth to an impressive 1,444kg/ha for beef and lamb.

Much of this improvement has been made since moving away from set stocking in favour of rotational grazing.

This transition happened after James joined the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (Cafre) business development group seven years ago.

Being land-locked by sky-high land prices and rents means he must make the best use of the little land he has to improve business efficiency and profitability.

Grassland management

In the past nine years, farm profitability has trebled. This has been achieved by increasing stocking rates by 40% and lowering inputs by doubling grass growth from 6t/ha dry matter (DM) to 12t/ha DM.

Nitrogen use is unchanged at 75kg/ha after silage and 20kg/ha per grazing.

James says: “Ten years ago, I would have described this farm as one where we kept beef and sheep. Today, I would say this is a grassland farm where beef and sheep keep us.”

Calves are bought at two weeks old in October/November and reared, on milk powder until 100kg, in a purpose-built shed that doubles as a lambing shed in the spring.

Their first winter is spent on a home mix of barley and soya hulls, before they are transitioned to red clover silage ahead of turnout in March and graze until November.

Silage, sheep and cattle ground is rotated each year to reduce worm burdens, and faecal egg counts (FECs) are taken to inform worming policies. Stock classes match grass growth well, so that lambs are finished just as the demand from cattle intensifies.

Excellent grass utilisation of 86% is achieved by pre-mowing grass every other cattle paddock from the third rotation onwards. Post weaning, fit ewes follow lambs.

Reseeding and silage

Seafields Farm is a former Second World War airfield exposed to the elements of the Irish Sea.

Comprising mainly free-draining, sandy-loam soils, it is prone to burning off and nutrient losses.

However, James is playing to the strength of the farm’s location, utilising valuable, free nutrients by applying seaweed to reinvigorate soils.

Leys last 10 years on average; those that fall below par for growth are reseeded. Grass is sprayed off, then manure and composted seaweed are applied before the field is ploughed and sown with a break crop of winter barley in October. The field is then returned to grass after harvest.

The inclusion of multispecies swards, red clover and ryegrasses is lowering nitrogen use, as the swards and clover receive slurry only.

Slurry from a neighbouring dairy farm is applied to silaging ground using low-emissions spreading equipment.

Applying granular lime and CAN fertiliser to reseeds has helped lift soil pH to 6.5, and the whole farm is soil tested annually.

Surplus grass is baled rather than grazed. This is fed during periods of grass shortages and in winter.

This approach, alongside taking three quality cuts of silage, has helped lower concentrate use from 1.3t a head to 0.6t.


James plans to source beef animals directly off farm and switch to Innovis maternal sheep genetics next year, having seen an uplift in performance since using Primera sires.

He is also helping other farms improve grazing proficiency through his involvement in demonstration networks and research.

What the judges say:

James is maximising output from his small land base. He is strategically pre-mowing to get fantastic grass utilisation and output per hectare and has an impressive can-do attitude to match.

James Henderson summary

The judges liked

  • Values high-genetic-merit stock
  • Making data-driven decisions
  • Getting superb grass utilsation
  • Open-minded and not afraid to change

The numbers

  • 500mm Average rainfall for the past two years
  • 0.7t Reduction in concentrate use a head
  • 0% Mortality in the last batch of 90 beef heifers
  • 92% Lambs grading within specification
  • 1,444kg Liveweight produced a hectare

John Ritchie

Montalt Farm, Perthshire

Farm facts

  • 146ha (361 acres) owned, 126ha (311 acres) rented
  • 550 Logie hybrid ewes; 95 Saler suckler cows put to Simmental, Angus and Saler bulls
  • Lambs sold to M&S through Scotbeef
  • Store cattle and breeding heifers sold direct to two farmers

John Ritchie has a clear business mission: to make work on his family farm simple, sustainable and satisfying.

Applying these principles to his business has encouraged him to reduce expensive inputs and get back to basics.

He has increased grass growth from 6.5t/ha dry matter (DM) to 8.2t/ha DM while simultaneously slashing fertiliser and feed at this challenging upland farm.

It sits 300m above sea level and mainly comprises shallow or wet soils.

John says his “lightbulb” moment came in 2012. “I was looking at the accounts and we were profitable but when you took out subsidy there was little left,” he says, adding that the catalyst for change was “getting off the farm and seeing what was possible”.

The journey

John has gone from being reliant on feed and fertiliser to using them as a targeted input. At its peak, feed inputs totalled 90t annually while fertiliser hit 55t. This has been cut to 19t and 12t, respectively.

Moving from set stocking to rotational grazing on two-day shifts has unlocked much of this potential, along with changing breeds from Scotch Mules, Simmental cows and Charolais bulls in favour of hardier natives.

John explains: “It wouldn’t have been uncommon for us to have kept an empty cow because she produced a good calf the year before.

“It didn’t matter what it cost you physically, mentally and financially, our focus was what that calf looked like in the sale ring.”

Making this transition has meant listening to things that are “often hard to hear” and not being afraid to make mistakes along the way.

Spending £14,000 on grazing infrastructure and creating 90 paddocks, each totalling 1.3ha, was a critical turning point that paid for itself within 18 months.

Grassland management

Sheep are given priority to fresh grass followed by cattle. John says this leader-follower system has been a “revelation” in improving grass utilisation and maintaining animal growth rates.

Sheep enter grass covers of 2,800kg/ha DM and graze down to 2,100kg. Cattle are expected to clean out paddocks to 1,700kg. John mows behind mobs of sheep where he does not have enough cattle to follow.

Sheep lamb in April in 34 days outdoors and all finished lambs are sold off grass by September, ready for flushing ewes ahead of tupping.

Breeding selection pressure has resulted in good cow fertility, and cows perform well without concentrates and on second-quality grazing.

Cows calve for eight weeks in March. Just 2.5% were empty last year and, on average, 75% of heifers are in calf after a three-week bulling period.

Low assistance rates of 1-2% and high health result in low mortality; this year 100% of the spring-born calves were still running with cows.

John is adding value by selling store cattle and breeding heifers direct to repeat buyers. He has a close relationship with these farmers.

The store buyer provides him with abattoir feedback and, in return, John is tailoring his vaccination policy to their requirements.

To minimise housing costs during winter, sucklers graze on either deferred hill pasture or forage rape and oat straw depending on body condition score.


The metamorphosis at Montalt means it is bucking trends for upland farms. Gross farm profit is 22% of turnover without subsidy.

John now plans to up sucklers to 120 and halve sheep numbers. “The cattle are far more resilient in this system and are less work,” he says.

What the judges say

John has found ways to work smarter, not harder, and by improving grass quality and utilisation he has made huge input savings, making his upland beef and sheep farm resilient, rewarding and profitable.

John Ritchie summary

The judges liked

  • Making best use of a challenging, upland farm
  • Clear family goals to help focus priorities
  • Technically and financially very astute
  • Intrinsically wildlife-friendly farm with the hill a haven for curlews and lapwings

The numbers

  • 45% Reduction in fertiliser
  • 40% Increase in stocking rate
  • 0 Feed given to ewes pre-lambing
  • 8.2t Dry matter of grass grown a hectare in 2022
  • 1.1kg Daily liveweight gain of growing cattle off grass

James Waterhouse

Fourth Milestone Farm, North Yorkshire

Farm facts

  • 202ha (499 acres), half owned, half rented
  • Milking 305 Kiwi-cross cows and 45 pedigree Ayrshires
  • Milk sold to Arla
  • Milking twice daily
  • Spring calving, yielding 4,500 litres at 4.7% butterfat and 3.6% protein

The dairy at Fourth Milestone Farm has undergone significant transformation in the past 10 years to improve business resilience and sustainability.

James Waterhouse was originally year-round calving with a mix of arable crops, but transitioned to spring-block calving in 2014 after taking on an additional 100ha.

A tight calving period of nine weeks and good grassland management are integral to business profitability.

Like many farms, lower rainfall has become problematic over the past four seasons.

To combat this, James and his herd manager, Tom Coast-Brown, are experimenting with bespoke mixes of multispecies leys.

Introducing 20ha of legumes to the mainly sandy-loam farm, and leaving high grass covers to protect soils, has successfully improved drought tolerance.

Grassland management

Last season, the 123ha grazing platform grew 8.5t/ha dry matter (DM) and was stocked at 2.8 cows a hectare, on average, with farm cover maintained at about 2,200kg/ha DM.

This year, to prevent pasture burning off, they have grazed higher pre-grazing covers of 5,200kg/ha DM and left higher residuals of about 1,800kg/ha DM to protect grass regrowth.

While milk yields dropped by four litres a cow, it has meant they have not had to feed supplementary silage and concentrate to bolster periods of lower growth.


Cows are turned out after calving from February until November. During this period, grazing covers are measured weekly and the results are recorded on AgriNet software.

Alongside quarterly milk recording, this gives James a wealth of information from which he can earmark the poorest yielding fields for reseeding each year.

Soil disturbance is kept to a minimum and fields are sprayed off and either strip-tilled with a Sumo and sown using a combi-drill or direct drilled.

Mixes of deep-rooting chicory, white clover and three varieties of ryegrass are carefully selected.

James discounts some of the highest yielding varieties as a tool to help lower nitrogen inputs.

“We think the grasses at the top of the Recommended List will more likely need more fertiliser,” he explains.

In total, 80kg/ha of nitrogen is applied annually, which includes 35kg of urea. The remainder is slurry, spread using a dribble bar.


Key to achieving good grassland utilisation is having a tight calving period. James has reduced the calving period from 12 weeks to nine using Cow Alert pedometers to detect heats. Last season, empty rates averaged 8.7%.

Good cow health is aiding longevity of 4.8 lactations, on average, with mastitis cases averaging just 5%.

During the winter, R1s and R2s graze on deferred grass and silage bales of mixed legumes.

Previously, cows were outwintered on fodder beet, but a new loose-housed shed was built in 2022 to allow the milking herd to be fed silage indoors.

This has not only helped protect soils against run-off over the winter, but improved cow welfare, says James.

He has also invested in a new 30/60 Waikato parlour and a 50kW solar array to reduce electricity costs.

James believes he has created a blueprint for sustainable dairy farming by having low production costs to weather volatility, and diverse leys to withstand drier climates.

He is simultaneously driving business performance and staff retention by using a profit- share agreement and would like to expand by taking on a second unit.

What the judges say

James is clearly profit-driven and has identified that the weather is his biggest challenge. He is addressing this by using legumes and adapting his grazing management to bolster grass production.

James Waterhouse summary

The judges liked

  • Experimenting with bespoke multispecies leys to improve drought resilience
  • Using a profit-share agreement to improve staff retention and business performance
  • Profit-driven through involvement in benchmarking groups
  • Soil testing the whole farm annually

The numbers

  • 393kg Milk solids produced a cow in 2022
  • 620kg Milk solids produced a hectare in 2022
  • 1.1t Concentrate fed a head in 2022
  • 508mm Annual rainfall in 2022
  • 80kg Urea and slurry applied annually a hectare

Sponsor’s message

Germinal logo“Germinal develops climate-smart forage products, and we congratulate the finalists on their management of resources, applied knowledge and commitment to achieving great results.”

Paul Billings, managing director, Germinal