Rotational grazing on multi-species swards transforms production

Wednesday 22.03.2023 , News

Grazing research trials supported by Germinal have shown how the benefits of multi-species rotational grazing include a positive impact on livestock production. Cornish sheep and beef farmer Chris Sobey has found the same. He shares his experiences of how he’s using herbal leys to drive production on his livestock farm.

The benefits of multi-species swards

  • Reduced inputs – concentrate has dropped from 4 kg to 2.5 kg per day and fertiliser use has stopped completely
  • Improved livestock performance
  • Multi-species swards growing a month longer than grass during the drought period
  • Cattle easier to handle as they learn they are being moved to fresh ground regularly
  • Reduced requirements of anthelmintics
  • Countryside stewardship payments
  • Greater biodiversity
  • Improved soil structure

The challenges

  • Leys are not as dense as they look, so are grazed quickly with stock taken out before they go too far, allowing the swards to take off again quickly
  • S4 must be shut up for five weeks, causing some practical issues with the rotational system and could be grazed better if this wasn’t the case
  • The stewardship leys have to be in the ground for five years, so performance in the latter years is unknown and may require overseeding if certain species decline

Chris took over the management of his 200-acre family farm near Menheniot in Cornwall in 2018 after an early career in the pharmaceutical and veterinary industries. Now in a tenancy arrangement with his parents, he’s finishing beef cattle and store lambs.

On taking over his parents’ farm, the immediate priority was to address some particularly unproductive permanent pastures which required reasonable levels of inputs for questionable returns. His approach was two-dimensional – the introduction of rotational grazing and the sowing of multi-species swards within a countryside stewardship scheme.

Rotational grazing on multi-species

“Changing to rotational grazing on multi-species from set stocking has been transformational,” said Chris. “It’s enabled me to manage the pastures better by grazing them harder and quicker with stock in larger mobs.”

Based on 2022 data, Chris gained the same or better productivity compared to the high input older pastures of previous years and without needing to apply fertiliser.

“My initial interest in herbal leys was stimulated after a successful year of rotational grazing older leys. With improved productivity gains, the payments I receive for growing multi-species leys within the stewardship agreement are a bonus rather than my primary motivator.”

Livestock production gains

Chris buys local cattle aged 12 to 18 months in spring and aims to fatten them up and sell them off grass. He keeps a close eye on facts and figures, using daily liveweight gain (DLWG) as his gauge. He also fattens store lambs during winter on the home farm and on additional winter keep.

During the first spring of rotational grazing, the cattle achieved an average DLWG rate of 1.4 kg, although this dropped sharply to 0.4 kg in some cattle during mid-summer as grass quality fell.

In spring 2022, average rates were similar with some individual animals achieving over 2.0 kg DLWG. This fell away again during a hot spell in June when temperatures exceeded 30°C, but not as far as the previous year, averaging 0.77 kg.

“I think some of this reduction was initially due to heat stress. Once cattle were able to graze the pastures with wooded areas, they bounced back quickly and continued to perform well,” he explained.

Chris was delighted that the fields containing more diverse swards stayed noticeably greener throughout July and August despite the drought. “To safeguard against any potential detrimental effects, I did buffer feed with silage for a while and maintained an average DLWG of 1.1 kg,” he said. By early September, some cattle were back to achieving rates of at least 1.75 kg.

Any cattle not sold off grass are housed and finished with silage made from grass, multi-species swards and red clover. Some of the 18% protein red clover silage has produced DLWG of over 2 kg but without laying down too much fat, which Chris feels is great for his heifers.

Managing multi-species swards

Chris prepared the ground for the herbal leys in the previous year by sowing potatoes, arable silage and brassicas, addressing all fields showing low pH results with an application of lime. Since sowing the multi-species mixtures, he’s managed without fertiliser altogether, using only farmyard manure and sludge but recognises he will have to buy P&K fertiliser if the fields give low results when tested again.

Chris sowed some of the leys using his own KRM air seeder, with others sown by a local contractor using a rotaseeder. “Focusing on setting up the air seeder correctly was difficult; I had to ensure the back tines of the machine did not bury the tiny seeds too deeply and risk losing them completely,” he commented.

He also found that the difference in species between the fields was quite varied, even though they were planted at the same time from the same batch of seeds.

Weed control

Due to the lack of spray applications available for multi-species, Chris focused on clearing weeds before planting. He has had a degree of weed burden but so far has found concentrated spot spraying an effective means of control and will continue to contain any future weeds this way. He also tops the fields before any rest period, which has helped with control and keeps growth young and fresh.

Financial and environmental benefits

Chris concludes: “My primary target has always been to fatten cattle and lambs effectively, leaving some margin. For me, it is not about having green fields just to tick a box. For this reason, I need to keep up my use of clovers alongside the more diverse leys.

“I prioritise being more commercially focused than environmentally sympathetic but it’s pleasing to see the increased wildlife on the farm. When moving stock between fields last summer, it was obvious the swifts and swallows were following us and flying above the cattle to catch whatever was being disturbed below.’’

Ask an expert about multi-species rotational grazing