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A regenerative approach to beef grazing cattle is helping a Shropshire farmer take his family business one step close to self-sufficiency. Since returning home... How new grazing system boosts beef profitability

A regenerative approach to beef grazing cattle is helping a Shropshire farmer take his family business one step close to self-sufficiency.

Since returning home 15 years ago to farm with his parents, Angus Hawkins has been keen to make use the family’s grassland to cut costs and boost the long-term viability of their livestock enterprise near Newport.

Supported by fast-food chain McDonald’s and sustainability experts FAI Farms, Mr Hawkins says regenerative grazing is yielding positive results for beef profitability – and for the environment too.

Switching to a regenerative system involved implementing an adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing set-up. This focuses on regenerating land to help protect pastures, improve recovery rates and increase plant biomass.

The switch has required a shift in mindset and considerable infrastructure changes. But Mr Hawkins says grass is now available all year-round for his livestock – and he is one step closer to total self-sufficiency for the 200ha mixed farm.

Family business

Once running a suckler herd alongside store cattle, Mr Hawkins says the family initially trialled a more intensive approach. But they found that fluctuating input prices cast too much uncertainty over profit margins.

“Weighing up the financial aspects and issues with bovine tuberculosis, we decided to get rid of our suckler cows, in favour of buying in dairy-cross calves as weanlings to finish,” explains Mr Hawkins.

Another strategy was to rethink the grazing strategy to expand beef numbers and keep a lid on input costs. “The main aim was to make sure we’ve got grass all year round, to enable us to feed our livestock in a cost-effective way.”

The farm’s 60ha of peatland soils present a particular challenge. “We’ve got a lot of bottom ground that floods and normally have a three-month window to graze a lot of grass,” says Mr Hawkins.

“With climate change bringing more extreme seasons, we wanted to make sure we were protecting ourselves against changing weather patterns. “Keeping a tall sward on the peatland helps maintain moisture, reduce airflow and keeps the peat cooler.”

The more Mr Hawkins learned about regenerative grazing systems that prioritise soil health, the more it appealed as a ‘win-win’ solution.

“We only have one shed to house cattle in, and we had seen some issues with calf pneumonia, so adapting the grazing system offered us the opportunity to start outwintering too and maintain stock numbers all year-round.”

To make the most of his grass, Mr Hawkins and sought advice from grazing consultant Marc Jones, who runs a beef and sheep herd in mid-Wales and is similarly transitioning to an AMP system with guidance from FAI.

“This opened the door to rotational grazing with herbal leys, as well as growing fodder beet for forage. We split fields into paddocks, of roughly one hectare each, grazing the cattle in bigger groups and moving them more regularly.”

This approach to grazing massively benefitted productivity. “We can now grow the cattle on grass all summer then outwinter them on fodder beet. The following spring, the aim is to be finishing just on grass.”

“The increase in forage volumes produced by the herbal leys has been awesome. We’ve found we have grass in front of the cattle all the time, helping to maintain growth rates but minimising day-to-day costs at the same time.

Transition

Before the AMP transition, Mr Hawkins let cattle graze down to the ground before moving them to a new paddock. He now moves them sooner and leaves more grass behind after grazing to encourage sward recovery.

Although AMP grazing is context-specific and looks slightly different on every farm, the rule of thumb at FAI is to graze around 25% of available forage in spring, increasing to 50% during summer, and 50-75% in autumn.

Mr Hawkins explains how this currently works on his farm. “We’re aiming to start grazing each paddock when the leys are knee high, then move the cattle once it’s grazed down to around ankle length.

“We allow a minimum of 30 days respite between each graze to ensure the land has enough time to rest and regenerate. Looking after soil structure is key.”

The whole process has taken more than five years – including learning about soil science and the ecological principles behind AMP grazing. But Mr Hawkins says the biggest lessons have come from putting theory to practice.

Sharing advice

“We were trying a totally new grazing system [but] I also wanted to revert some arable land to herbal leys to accommodate more cattle, so the main challenge was getting the fencing infrastructure set up right.”

Grants from Shropshire Wildlife Trust and Severn Trent’s Environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS) helped with the financial investment. Funding was also provided for additional water troughs.

“We’re in a high priority cryptosporidium catchment so had funding support for post and wire fencing against watercourses, to keep out livestock and protect water quality.”

Farming against the urban fringe of Telford has also presented challenges, with the occasional theft of electric fencing energisers – and having to navigate public footpaths established across the farm while making grazing changes.

Mr Hawkins says it has been invaluable to share his experience of overcoming these hurdles with other beef producers who are also transitioning to an AMP system with support from FAI Farms.

The outcomes have been pleasing, he adds. “It’s a great forum for asking questions and getting other farmers’ perspectives on how to make changes successful. It prevents us making the same mistakes.

“Managing grazing more will help lower our worm burden too – with the AMP system, we’re not grazing the cattle right down to the soil so they are further away from the worms. Ideally, we want to stop using bought-in wormers completely.”

The benefits are not just financial. Mr Hawkins says AMP grazing has also improved drought resilience, as well as enhancing soil health and biodiversity. “It definitely makes farming more enjoyable,” he says.

“I’ve noticed a boost in farmland wildlife, including more owls and dung beetles. It could be that trying to work with nature more closely to encourage grass growth has opened my eyes to what’s around.”

For more details about the grazing system, visit www.faifarms.com.