A Welsh beef and sheep farmer is able to carry a similar number of livestock to the headage he farmed before his land base was cut by 41 per cent because improved grassland management means he can grow 13t/ha dry matter of grass a year.

James Williams is the third generation of his family to farm Cefn Draw Farm, Three Crosses, Swansea. The farm had extended to 170 acres but when James’ father retired 70 acres was sold.

With 100 acres of owned land remaining, James had to rethink his system.

Embarking on a Farming Connect Master Grass course in 2019 was a turning point, instilling the confidence and knowledge to appreciate that grass could hold the key to maintaining livestock numbers at historic rates.

“The farm has been transformed in the four years since I started this journey. When I first starting measuring, in the spring flush I would record 90kg/ha DM growth a day, in 2023 it was 155kg.’’

The key difference has been grassland management. Fields are sub-divided into paddocks with investment in fencing and water infrastructure and a perimeter track established around those to make the movement of animals between paddocks a simple and stress-free job that can be done by one person.

“When you are doing daily moves you can see how much grass has grown in a day, it is very exciting to see,’’ says James.

He measures growth weekly, using the software programme, Agrinet, to calculate farm cover and the number of grazing days in each paddock.

These figures are shared with other farmers through the Farming Connect Welsh Pasture Project, allowing growers with similar land, climate and systems to benchmark their own production.

“I really like recording on Agrinet because I can compare the figures every year and weekly measuring gives me the incentive to go out and look at the farm,’’ says James.

He targets high opening grass covers in the spring – as much as 4,000kgDM/ha. “When the basal leaf at the bottom has died off it is a sign that the plant is fully grown,’’ he says.

A system of higher density non-selective grazing allows high utilisation. “It means every plant gets utilised, animals are not selecting the best species, they take everything, it gives everything an even chance,’’ James explains.

“My one thing is to avoid over-grazing because taking that second bite before the plant has fully recovered takes energy out of the root reserve.’’

Leys are a mix of ryegrass and clover and GS4 mixes.

The only nutrient he applies is farmyard manure, composted by the inclusion of woodchip and composting worms. Synthetic fertilisers have not been used for many years.

“I think the system is beyond organic but because I rent 40 acres of summer grazing which isn’t organic land I haven’t certified as organic,’’ James explains.

He is a member of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) though and is considering Pasture for Life certification as a way of marketing his meat to add value going forward.

Stores from the beef herd and fat lambs from the sheep flock are currently sold through livestock markets but James believes he could capture a higher price with direct sales.

His beef system is in a period of change, transitioning from Limousin-cross suckler cows to an Aberdeen Angus-cross. All 20 cows and heifer replacements were sired to an Aberdeen Angus this year. 

“I want an animal that can perform on grass, not one that needs extra concentrate. If you want to run a low cost grass-only system it is one of the things that has to change,’’ says James.

“I am aiming for an animal that can finish off grass and consume a large amount of lower quality forage and still maintain body condition. I’m looking for the volume it can consume, not feed conversion efficiency, as conversion efficiency tends to select for later maturing, heavier-boned animals.’’

Cattle are on grass from the end of March to the end of December and the flock lambs outdoors over three weeks in March.

To manage parasite burdens, cattle grazing is alternated with sheep – James has 70 Texel x Lleyn x Blue Faced Leicester ewes but is planning to switch to Easycare genetics.

His principal goal is to eliminate anthelmintics use – he no longer doses cows or ewes, only youngstock when they need it, aiming to produce “parasite resistant animals, not anthelmintic resistance parasites.’’

“I don’t agree with propping up animals, I want a system in which animals have to do the work,’’ says James.

“I have moved my focus from being reactive as far as worms are concerned by putting everything into pasture management and genetics.

“I don’t see this as an easy ride but it is doable, I don’t want to rely on the crutches of chemicals.’’

The 2019 Master Grass course also focussed James’ mind on soil health – he uses the Farming Connect Advisory Service to establish the nutrient values in his soils.

He is adopting an organic agricultural method that takes advantage of indigenous microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria to produce rich soil. “I only want to do positive things for the land and that includes having soil that is rich in fungi.’’

Reflecting on the last four years, he describes it as “transformational’’.

“I didn’t realise the importance of managing grass, I see management above everything else as being the most important of all,’’ he admits. 

Looking ahead to 2024, he will build on what he has already achieved. “It’s all about high utilisation, non-selective grazing and genetics.’’

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