Paddock grazing at 350m above sea level – Why not?

Date published: 25 July 2019

James McDonnell farms a few miles from the picturesque village of Glenarm on the Antrim coast. The farm carries 40 autumn calving suckler cows and 50 ewes. The suckler herd consists of mainly Saler x cows with 100 % Ai being used with predominantly Charolais genetics. The calves are normally sold as weanlings in mid-summer.

James McDonnell with Stephen Flanagan, CAFRE Beef and Sheep adviser assessing grass covers in paddocks on land at 350m outside Glenarm.

This SDA farm runs from just below 200m to almost 350m above sea level and it is on the higher hill ground that James has ‘bucked the trend’ and established a paddock grazing system working with one-day paddocks.  Going from totally set stocking to managing a paddock system is a big enough step for some farmers, but to do it at 350m above sea level on rough land which is not suitable for cutting, is very unique. 

The tell-tale signs of more farmers setting up rotational grazing systems across NI, is becoming increasingly more evident. This is totally understandable as a number of factors have come together in the past few years, such as the increasing cost of rented land, concentrate feeds and fertiliser. This is forcing more farmers to closely look at grassland management to maximise the utilisation of the cheapest form of feed on the farm.

Some of the farmers in James’ Business Development Group (BDG) during a recent visit were most impressed with his paddock grazing system, by the simplicity, low cost and potential it offers to maximise grass utilisation.

James is getting all he can from this hill land by paddock grazing – and it is working!  Previously this ground would graze 25 cows and calves but it’s now carrying 30 cows and calves and there is an excess of grass. This is because the grass regrowth is protected for a prolonged period between grazings. This extra grass growth and stock carrying capacity on the hill is enabling James to cut more fields at home for silage which will reduce the need for conacre.

The BDG members questioned how the system will cope during wet weather and what shelter the cows have in the paddocks. So far the system is working well with some poaching in certain paddocks but James states: “The cows would have been discontent and would have damaged the ground anyway during a wet night, but during wet weather I now have the flexibility to move them onto heavier covers with less damage seen.”

James went on to say: “Once the paddocks have been set up, the labour involved is a lot less than strip grazing, also the cattle are more content than set stocking. Plus I have to check the cows every day anyway, so when they are getting moved I can observe each cow and calf as they walk past me into fresh grass. Stockmanship and supervision of cattle is much better.” Seems like paddocks are here to stay on this hill farm!!

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