Making the most of grass and forage - Portadown suckler BDG visit Alastair McNelly’s technology demonstration farm

Date published: 18 October 2022

Making the most of grass and forage - Portadown suckler BDG visit Alastair McNelly’s technology demonstration farm

CAFRE Technology Demonstration Farmer, Alastair McNeilly, Muckamore talks to the Portadown suckler Business Development Group.

Alastair McNeilly, farms 58.7 hectares (145 acres) at Muckamore, Co. Antrim. He manages a suckler herd of 85 cows with a mixture of Limousin, Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorn and Simmental genetics. He is currently spring calving with male progeny finished as steers at 18-22 months. He rears all his own replacements and aims for them to calve down at 24 months old. Heifers not retained for breeding are finished on farm.

This year the suckler enterprise has produced an impressive gross margin of £1232/ha. The farm also has two broiler chicken houses, which has allowed Alastair to farm at home full time.

Alastair began to measure grass in 2017 after becoming a member of GrassCheck. Since then, grassland management has improved significantly and so has farm performance. In 2017 the farm ran 67 suckler cows with a stocking rate of 2 CE/ha. This has increased to 89 suckler cows this year with a stocking rate of 2.78 CE/ha, without taking any more land. Grass is measured weekly using a rising plate sward meter and all measurements logged to the grass management software, AgriNet. This allows a grass wedge to be created and decisions to be made from the data. 

The group took a tour of the paddock system which is split across three blocks. The main grazing block of 8.32ha (20.5 acres) nearest the yard is split into 13 paddocks ranging from 0.64 – 0.85ha (1.6 -2.1 acres). Alastair started with simple plastic posts and poly wire five years ago and has recently started replacing these with more permanent wooden posts and galvanised electric wire. His target pre-grazing covers are 2800 – 3000 kg/DM (10 cm) and his post grazing covers are 1600 – 1700 (4-5cm). A gravel lane way through the centre of the paddocks has allowed Alastair to move cattle quickly and easily between paddocks depending on their covers.

Significant investment has also been made in recent years to improve the farms heavy clay soils. Fields have been sampled every 2-3 years with a targeted nutrient plan made for each field using the CAFRE Nutrient Calculator. Compaction has also been alleviated with the use of a pan buster.  Grass varieties have been selected based on their heading date and performance using recommended lists. Alastair has selected mixes with both diploid and tetraploid varieties with an intermediate to late heading date.

Alastair has successfully trialled a red clover and hybrid ryegrass mix for one of his silage fields. Careful management has allowed four cuts for baled silage followed by a late season grazing in September. These high quality bales are fed to finishing bullocks to reduce meal required over the winter period.

Discussion during a summer visit with farmers from the British grassland society highlight some of the difficulties in selecting the correct grass variety to use with red clover. The consensus at that visit from experts present was to use a perennial ryegrass as it would be less competitive than hybrid ryegrass after a cut of silage. Alastair hopes to use this mix in his next red clover reseed.

The visit finished with a look at Alastair’s new handling facilities. He has recently installed a new curved handling pen and forcing gate along with a hydraulic cattle crush with Bluetooth control. This allows him to handle the cattle safely by himself. It also allows visitors to the farm such as vets or AI technicians to access the cattle safely.

If you would like to visit Alastair’s farm, details of all TDFs, including Alastair’s, and how to book a visit are available on the CAFRE website. At the moment CAFRE is taking group bookings only by emailing

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the European Union fund the Business Development Groups Scheme and the establishment of Technology Demonstration Farms across Northern Ireland, as part of the Rural Development Programme.

Notes to editors: 

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