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Cattle Farmers Look Into Improving Upland Grazing Opportunities

09 March 2016

A group of farmers in the North of England have got together to run a trial looking at cattle grazed on rough upland pasture. Neil Ryder reports.

Farmers in Cumbria, Yorkshire Dales and North Lancashire are working together in a trial looking at improving performance from cattle grazed on rough upland pastures, a project supported by The Farmer Network.

Co-ordinated by the Network’s Kate Gascoyne, the work is, in part, a response to a requirement for cattle grazing within many HLS and other environmental agreements. These agreements frequently involve a reduction in sheep numbers balanced, to some extent, by limited cattle grazing.

Ms Gascoyne says that the bulk of trial work on upland grazings is linked to sheep grazing with relatively little work involving cattle. The current trial is run in conjunction with the Federation of Cumbria Commoners and financial backing from. The Prince’s Countryside Fund.

The trial has brought together 11 farmers with various breeds of native and continental cattle and includes some common grazings.

The aim of the trial is to monitor the growth of cattle while grazing upland pastures, to analyse the grass from rough grazing and improved pastures, and to compare the quality of grass for the grazing animals.

Young cattle were weighed and adult cattle condition scored on turnout to pastures with any worm treatments and any trace element supplements given also noted. Samples of grass from pastures were taken each month from May through to October. Grass samples were taken in July and analysed for minerals and trace elements. Forage samples were also taken for analysis in November.

Graziers on Birker Common in South West Cumbria also monitored grass growth rates on improved and rough grazing for a three week period every other month from May until September throughout the grazing period for cattle in their HLS agreement.

Because of the range of systems and cattle, a full set of data was not collected from all the farms involved. Also it was noted that the tests used for grass samples were calibrated for testing lowland improved grassland mixes.

Nutrition specialists had warned that the results obtained would not be completely accurate, but said that results were as good as any other feasible way of assessing feed value.

The information gathered in the first year was only a ‘snapshot’ of the grazing season in an unusual farming year. Cattle ages at turnout varied greatly and there was a range of breeds. Average daily liveweight gains varies from 0.3kg to 1.2kg and ranged from 0.1kg to 1.6kg.

As expected D value (digestibility) and ME (metabolisable energy) were highest from improved lower altitude pastures though results from rough grass analyses were surprisingly good. Crude protein decreased but sugar content increased on rough grazings as the summer progressed. Participating farmers agreed that it was well worth continuing the analyses in the 2016 following an unusual grazing season in 2015.

Ms Gascoyne says: “Some farmers reported that younger cattle ‘fed up’ during the winter period to gain weight and maintain condition before turnout, lost weight and condition after turnout whereas cattle with lower weights and condition retained weight and condition.

“While the cold, wet spring of 2015 may have exacerbated this effect, it appeared that pushing cattle on as calves was more efficient than feeding cattle that were 12 months or older. Where much of this calf feeding was provided by milk from and efficient suckler cow on rough grazing feed costs were minimised.

“Farmers involved agreed that the trial had been very useful but felt that to gain more knowledge that the trial needed to continue for another two years. They wanted to continue monitoring cattle growth, perhaps splitting cattle in to one group on rough pasture and one on improved pasture. Analyses of grass and forage samples were also seen as important,” she said.

New areas the farmers want to investigate include:

  • Faecal worm egg counts and blood profiling to check whether worms, metabolic deficiencies, or diseases maybe affecting growth rates.
  • Use information on growth rates and numbers of animals reared or sold to determine weight of meat produced per acre.
  • Analysis of muck samples to gain information on what the cattle were eating.
  • Collection of grass samples at the same time of day and to record climatic conditions at time of collection.
  • Examination of swards, especially on rough grazing, to determine plant species and identify those being eaten by cattle. This would also be useful information for farms with HLS management agreements linked to moorland restoration management prescriptions.

Progress on the project is being presented at on-farm events. The first was hosted last autumn by Mark Fox at Crosbythwaite, Ulpha – a hard hill unit in the Lake District National Park.

Mark Fox grazed Aberdeen Angus on fell as part of the project

Mr Fox said his Lake District ESA agreement had finished in 2014 and he had taken up an HLS agreement involving cattle grazing on fell for 17 weeks of the year. In his own case he was grazing pedigree Aberdeen-Angus heifers.

When these went on to the fell they were in two groups, one of ‘fit’ animals getting ready for bulling with condition scores of 4-5 and some little ones. On the fell the smaller ones put on condition while the bigger ones lost condition a little which overall worked well.

The increased cattle were supposed to compensate for the reduced sheep numbers on the fell, but the cattle tended to hang around in the same areas whereas the sheep spread around. There were also cages on both the inbye land and on the fell to measure grass growth but had no results yet.

The second was hosted this year by Alan Tallentire, High Griseburn, Appleby, a former upland dairy unit lying about 750ft above sea level now home to a high health status Simmental based beef enterprise. Including a small pedigree Simmental herd. There is also a Mule sheep flock.

Alan Tallentire keeps a small pedigree Simmental herd

Calving of the commercial suckler cows is mainly in the spring, the calves over wintered on silage then grazed with a little concentrate to be sold stores the following autumn.

“It is quite good at growing grass on this farm so we try to make quality silage and keep concentrate feeding down as much as we can.

"The suckler calves just have their mother’s milk and then silage until they go out for their second summer. They then get a little concentrate and are sold as 14 to 18 month old stores at the October sales in Kirkby Stephen,” he said.

The project is backed by Rumenco, Natural England, and the British Simmental Cattle Society.

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