Meat from grazed grass through management and breeding

GrassCheckGB is an industry, academic and levy board collaboration helping British farmers improve their grassland management

Cell grazing and top sheep genetics are maximising production from grazed grass on a Welsh farm.

Maximising the value of meat produced from every hectare of grazed grass is the number one objective for sheep and beef producer, Alwyn Phillips on his farm in North Wales.

He achieves this on his 59 hectares (145acres) at Penygelli through a combination of techniques. These include using cell grazing to maximise quality and utilisation of grazed grass; keeping two flocks of ewes to lamb in two defined blocks between December and April; and performance-recording his stock, including CT scanning, to help ensure he identifies and breeds from the genetically elite.

As a participant in GrassCheckGB Mr Phillips also measures his grass production on a weekly basis and has its quality analysed every two weeks.

Describing the time he spends measuring grass as his ‘most valuable and productive couple of hours of the week’, he says it gives him an early warning of both surplus and shortfall and has convinced him his farm can grow more.

“GrassCheckGB data gives me performance-recorded grass to complement my performance-recorded lambs.”

Alwyn Phillips, GrassCheckGB Project Farmer, North Wales

Mr Phillips was an early convert to the principles of cell (or paddock) grazing, having travelled to New Zealand in the late 1990s to meet Harry Weir, a pioneer of the system.

Establishing the practice on his own farm in 2016, he says he ‘hasn’t looked back’, having dramatically increased the output of his swards.

Unlike in set-stocking, which he says ‘hammers the good grasses, allowing the poorer species to become dominant and tough’, cell grazing presents only young grasses to the stock which are all evenly consumed.

“Measuring, recording and analysing data has allowed Alwyn to significantly improve the efficiency and performance of his business which is reflected in the quality of his livestock,” says Nia Davies, R&D officer for HCC, one of the partners in GrassCheckGB.

Grazing in cells is said to be essential to achieving such consistency in grass quality and the grazing platform for the sheep is now set up in 25 one-hectare cells. Each field has a permanent central ‘hot-wire’ electric fence and central water pipe with ‘push-pull’ water troughs, allowing the fields to be sub-divided into one-hectare cells. These can be further subdivided when there are fewer stock.

However, the system at Penygelli is about far more than growing grass, as it has to be converted, with the greatest possible efficiency, into quality meat.

This depends not only on lambing the flock of 230 Dorsets from late December/Jan and following this with the 200 Texels which lamb from late March through April, but also on seeking and breeding the highest possible genetics.

The system with the Dorset ewes is to strip-graze fodder beet and give lambs access to creep for early finishing at a high market price in a high-input high-output regime.

“From the day a lamb is born it costs us money to keep, so the sooner it’s sent to slaughter, the more profitable it is,” says Mr Phillips.

Meanwhile, the 200 Texels lamb from late March through April, on to cells with high grass cover. All lambs are performance-recorded for weight (taken at birth, eight weeks and 18-20 weeks) and ease of lambing, while ultrasound scans record fat depth and eye muscle area. The elite from the crop go on to be CT scanned, giving an accurate measure of a cross-section of traits including total muscle, fat and bone, killing out percent and intramuscular fat.

The upshot of this and other policies – including the use of AI every third year to introduce new bloodlines to the closed flock – is to produce breeding stock of the highest genetic merit. Of the 60 shearling Texel rams sold off the farm, 55 are in the breed’s top one per cent and all have been selected for their ability to produce meat from grass.

Despite the exceptional performance already achieved in producing meat from grass, Mr Phillips is confident he can do more.

“The potential is to grow 15-20 tonnes of grass DM/ha/year and we know we can improve,” he says. “I feel it’s much better to effectively gain acreage by growing more grass than paying rent for extra land of unknown quality and management.

“We aim to improve productivity by managing the cells better and improving utilisation of what we grow, with better forward planning, and with the help of grassland management software,” he says.

Mr Phillips is also experimenting with herbal leys through GrassCheckGB to improve soil structure.

“We don’t yet know how the stock will perform on the herbal ley but although the tonnage may be lower than a ryegrass sward, the feed conversion efficiency is expected to be better,” he says.

“We’re learning all the time, and that’s why I take part in GrassCheckGB. We don’t want to stand still and there’s always something to learn off the back of research. In fact, I consider the initiative to be my research budget!”

Alwyn Phillips, GrassCheckGB Project Farmer, North Wales

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