An organic livestock demonstration site has increased suckler cow numbers by 50% by splitting fields into paddocks and rotationally grazing the herd.
Gwyn and Delyth Parry converted their system to organic in 2008 and, in addition to 500 Welsh ewes, they keep a herd of spring calving black Limousin suckler cows, aiming to finish the offspring off grass by 18 months.
There had been a set stocking grazing system in place for many years but, since 2015, the Parrys had experimented with rotational grazing.
Last year, to measure the full potential of the system, 17 paddocks of equal size were created in three fields covering 5.28 hectares (ha) during a Farming Connect trial.
By adopting this system, increased grass growth and utilisation has given the couple the confidence to increase cow numbers from 60 to 90, without acquiring more land.
Mr Parry, who farms at Orsedd Fawr, a Farming Connect Demonstration Farm near Pwllheli, says the system also allows more control over input cost.
“By measuring grass and getting the animals to graze the paddocks more efficiently, we are growing better quality grass and more of it,’’ he reports.
The Parrys’ eldest son, Eifion, who is studying agriculture at Glynllifon College, measures the grass weekly with a plate meter.
Paddocks are stocked according to the time of year, peaking at 2500kg liveweight/ha by mid-June; they are moved to fresh grazing every two days.
Over the 2017 growing season the farm produced 694kg of liveweight/ha despite a high level of rainfall from September onwards.
There has also been a change in breeding policy. The Stabiliser, a breed recognised as a good converter of grass into meat, was introduced into the herd three years ago and the first heifers are calving this spring.
The combination of changes mean that not only are the Parrys able to keep more cows but they are finishing some of the cattle on grass before they are 18 months old.
Turnout in 2017 was in stages to match grass growth, with stocking rate ranging from 4.5 cattle/ha to 5.6 over the grazing season.
The aim is to finish all cattle off grass by 18 months but, in 2017, a fluke burden resulted in only a small number achieving that target.
Despite excellent grass covers, performance in the latter part of the grazing season was disappointing due to a significant fluke burden.
FEC analysis is regularly carried out as part of the Farming Connect project and this detected rumen fluke and lungworm early in the grazing season.
Despite treatment, traces of immature fluke were detected in animals when they were slaughtered towards the end of the summer which could be a reason why some didn’t perform as well as expected.
The average weight gained over the 180-day grazing period was 158kg, with some achieving 190kg but others gaining only 114kg.
From weaning at around 180 days, the cattle are weighed monthly and the Parrys had noticed that in November and December the daily live weight gain (DLWG) of this year’s calves was 200g below that of the previous year.
“We did faecal egg counts and those were positive for fluke. We treated them accordingly and sure enough the daily live weight gain increased to what we would expect,’’ says Mr Parry.
To get the youngstock off to a good start concentrate inputs were doubled at housing this winter; the winter diet also included homegrown grass and red clover silages.
With the farm’s organic concentrates costing £380/tonne and nine tonne fed to 78 cattle, it is a significant cost at £43.85/head but Mr and Mrs Parry say this is an investment worth making to capture higher returns for selling the cattle at finishing weights instead of as stores.
“There is a short window to get the cattle finished on grass so there is no margin for error,’’ says Mr Parry.
“If we didn’t give the cattle more concentrates at that stage we would not get the growth rates they are capable of.’’
Poor weather conditions this spring delayed turnout until March 19, more than a week later than in previous years. In 2017, cattle were housed on October 27.
“We have always turned out early because the land is quite free draining in parts but what has changed is that we can keep more cattle because we are growing more grass with rotational grazing,’’ says Mr Parry.
700 acres farmed across several holdings - 550 of which is owned and 150 acres is rented on a long-term tenancy agreement
Land divided between four parcels, all within eight miles from the main holding
All the farmed land is part of the Glastir Organic scheme