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Ceredigion coastal farm tackles changing weather patterns with grass management

Challenging and changing weather patterns are aspects of farming that most agricultural businessess need to tackle, whilst remaining profitable and sustainable. A Ceredigion coastal sheep farm has identified its grassland management as the most suitable and sustainable option to deal with inclement, coastal weather to boost production and income and have joined GrassCheck GB.

Posted on Apr 16 ,00:05

Ceredigion coastal farm tackles changing weather patterns with grass management

Penlan farm, Llanrhystud is home to Glyn, Eleri, Dewi and Ifan Davies, who manage this coastal holding to produce quality finished lamb. The south facing land has shallow soil that can present challenges for grass growth in dry summer months. Glyn and Eleri took over the running of the farm in 1998.  

The grazing platform of 35 hectares (86 acres) is rotationally grazed with a flock of 250 mixed lowland crossbred ewes and lambs which are sold largely finished on a deadweight basis from mid-June.  

Maximising grass growth utilization is a key goal for the farm, and they pay close attention to soil nutrients and to grass ley mixtures used for any reseeding of underperforming fields in order to take account of the soil type and grazing needs. Integrating grazed forage crops into their lamb production system is key to managing forage supply all year around on this farm.  

The challenges of south-facing shallow soils are highlighted during more common dry periods in the spring and summer months and the Davies family therefore are developing nutrient application strategies through soil analysis and nutrient planning for pH. Indices correction is a priority to strategically select underperforming swards for reseeding and improve input use efficiency.   

Talking about the land he manages with his wife and sons and the difficult decisions that need to be made to be profitable, Glyn Davies explains: "We have very shallow land and part of it is very coastal with about 8 ha (20 ac) facing the sea. About 20 ha (50 ac) are flat on the top and then we are sloping back down. It’s about half and half, some fairly easy to manage land and the other half a bit more challenging.   

"I have noticed changing weather patterns, and I would say we burn a bit easier now. We have also seen less grass at peak times and 2 years ago when we had that very hot summer we were really struggling. We had to feed the sheep from mid-July until September because there was no grass growing.   

"Weather is the biggest challenge we have got. We burn easy here and getting grass to grow at the right time can be difficult. If it is a dry summer, we will run out of grass and that’s when we need to decide what to do with the lambs. Do they go as stores or do we try and feed them. It is difficult to manage sometimes – until recently, ensuring we have grass at the right time was difficult".  

Understanding that a change in tactic was needed, Glyn Davies worked with Dewi and Ifan to find a solution to their grass problem and the farm joined GrassCheck GB just over 2 years ago.  

"When we first started farming here, I was just following on from what I had been taught. Block graze everything at the same time. If there was grass on the field, there was a mob of ewes going in there. And hopefully there would be grass going forward. I’d add some fertiliser and hope for the best.   

"We have been in GrassCheck now for 2 years and I’ve let the boys carry on with the project. I didn’t think it was going to work but after seeing it now in the second year we are growing more grass. For the first time in 15 years, we have manged to cut one small field of silage out that was getting ahead of the sheep. I haven’t seen that for many years here. Fertiliser usage is down and we’re selling more lambs at a better weight for a better price.  

"We are using less fertiliser and our input costs are down. We are also using less fuel on the farm and manage to get more silage. That means there is less feed being brought on to the farm. We are getting more self-sufficient and sustainable. We have got to adapt and change. By grazing cells rather than the whole field, we can manage the grass better and can work on that. By growing more grass, we can do a better job of it", explains Glyn.   

Dewi, who saw the GrassCheck GB project advertised on social media with Hybu Cig Cymru, is clear that whilst there is an element of work involved, the return on investment is worth it.   

He says: "You have to measure the grass and put in some time to record your data. Mainly you must commit to managing the land. However, it’s an investment in time that will save in other ways at the other end".  

Ifan adds: "We have a weather station and a plate meter, which were supplied as part of the project. It’s interesting to follow the weather pattern, and that feeds into the Grass Check GB model at the end. The WhatsApp group is also helpful, and you can pick up new ideas.   

"This way of farming also means budgeting and seeing what you’ve got in front of you. It means changing how you manage the land to suit the weather but also making sure you have enough grass in front of you".  

The family now manage their fields as quarters depending on shape and size of the field. “Sometimes just half the field has had an application of fertilizer just to catch up and decisions on where to apply fertiliser is very targeted. Our fields aren’t huge, so it tends to be two electric fences and you split it. They get grazed for a few days and then rotated,” says Dewi.   

Whilst this means a new way of working, the benefits are tangible. "Last year we managed to get our first lambs away in the 3rd week of May, which is ahead of time. We also usually see a drop after that, but we just kept on selling. The ewes and lambs were getting fresh grass every 2 – 3 days and they just kept on going. There wasn’t a pinch point for forage at all.  

"The ewes themselves are probably in the best condition they have ever been. They looked good in the autumn when they went to the tup's, scanning percentage was up with much more twins than usual and in fact we’re seeing about 65 extra lambs than previous years and the ewes themselves are healthy. They’ve got a shine to them", adds Ifan.  

A further change to managing the land came with the introduction of a field of stubble turnips and plans for reseeding are underway, with all decisions made based on data.  

Dewi explains: "We use that block of turnips as an energy source and protein for the ewes and lambs following lambing at turn out and means not needing to feed concentrate. All that adds to the sustainability story of the farm as well.  

"We are now looking at a reseeding programme too and the plan is to put a bit of forage in – forage rape for the summer to fatten the lambs, stubble turnips will go in after and then we will reseed in the spring and go back to grass. Nothing has been reseeded here for about 20 years. Now we are looking at which the top performing fields are and picking out the right ones in need. The data is there, and we make our decisions based on that data".   

HCC’s Head of Sustainability and Future Policy, Rachael Madeley-Davies, said: "Penlan farm is an excellent example of what can be achieved if we step outside of our comfort zone and embrace technology and new ways of farming. HCC is leading the way in encouraging out of the box thinking for the industry and this example showcases what can be done through data-based decision making – by using data including weather records, farms can and do improve their productivity and efficiency".

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