Revolutionary Change to Grass Management on Perthshire Farm

A Perthshire farmer says his approach to managing his farm business has undergone a revolutionary change following his experiences as a Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Grazing Group host.

Alex Brewster, who farms Rotmell, near Dunkeld in partnership with his parents Alastair and Morag, told a recent meeting of Quality Meat Scotland’s Better Grazing project in Inverness that his aim is to double his production by increasing livestock numbers through better utilisation of grass.

The three-year Better Grazing project launched this summer follows the successful QMS Grazing Group project, which came to an end in the spring. There are six regional groups around Scotland, which have the aim of helping farmers identify opportunities to improve profitability through better utilisation of grazed grass.

Mr Brewster, a Nuffield Scholar and former QMS Grazing Group host, said good grassland management is vital to increase the kilos of meat sold per hectare and farm profitability. The ingredients for better pasture, he said, included diversity of plant species as well as soil structure and quality.

“This whole notion of business size, based on how much land and how many sheep and cattle you have, is nonsense. Business size does not dictate profitability. We farm 1,000 hectares but with a large area of hill, I’d consider that only 400 hectares of that is effective.”

Mr Brewster said he had thoroughly enjoyed being a host farmer in the previous Grazing Group project.

“I started the project believing we had the potential to double production here and I still believe that, although it takes time and it is only now that we are beginning to increase stock numbers.

“If you accept the notion that set stocking is only achieving 50% of the potential of your grass, there is huge opportunity for improvement. There are no mistakes – just learning challenges! Every farm is different and you have to learn by experience.”

In order to make best use of the grazing resource he has at Rotmell, the autumn calvers are being phased out. This year Alex has 103 commercial Aberdeen-Angus cows going to the bull for calving in the spring and next year he plans to put 160 to the bull. There are also plans to increase the flock of 800 Blackface ewes.

Mr Brewster believes his farm needs a 50/50 or even 60/40 cattle to sheep ratio, based on livestock units at 10 ewes to a cow.

“It is difficult to improve pasture quality or rough grazing with sheep which need the best of grazing to maximise their potential output. Cattle perform better on the rougher grazing while also improving pasture,” he said.

His target for the lambs is 300g/day liveweight gain from birth to weaning, while the top 15% of his calves are achieving 1.35kg/day birth to weaning with nearly 50% cow/calf efficiency at 200 days. This, he believes, is an indication of the potential of the herd and an opportunity to bring the rest of the cows up to this standard.

Since starting his Nuffield scholarship, Mr Brewster has become convinced the secret to good pasture hinges on understanding soils, and in Scotland, with its high rainfall, improving organic matter is critical.

“Our unfair advantage in Scotland is rain. We can grow grass for six to seven months of the year with no limits if we can manage the moisture. One way to do that is to increase the water holding capacity of the soil by increasing organic matter,” he said.

“For every one per cent improvement in soil organic matter, the water-holding capacity of the soil increases by 2,500 tonnes per hectare. In practical terms, this can mean grazing earlier in the summer and later in the autumn when the weather is wet with quality grass and reduced risk of poaching.”

Mr Brewster is looking to improve his soils at Rotmell by managing the grazing to allow root systems to get deeper.

“We now have grass roots half a meter deep, which we did not have four years ago. This spring when there were near drought conditions here, we had no shortage of grass thanks to the deep rooting systems pulling moisture up from depth.”

He has also been striving to increase the diversity of plant species in his pasture, to encourage the biological activity of his soil. Beneficial micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi can aid particle binding and access to soil stored nutrients such as phosphate helping to improve soil fertility and structure.

While Mr Brewster has become keenly interested in the science behind the improvements on his farm, the business is also benefitting from a reduction of feeding costs and no bagged fertiliser use which has also led to reduced costs. A drive towards optimising soil pH and balancing out some of the soil mineral ratios has helped improve overall profitability.