The IfA team recently had the pleasure of joining Regenerative Agriculture researchers and consultants ‘FAI’, for a farm demo event at their 485ha organic farm in Oxfordshire. The event focused on their recent trials, which have tested the viability of outwintering cattle whilst also sequestering higher levels of carbon. A sell out event with over 50 farmers and consultants attending the day, many admittedly with the view that cattle could not be outwintered without causing long term damage to grass, and perhaps even at a detriment to the welfare of the animals. The team at FAI certainly did a good job of proving this assumption wrong.

Attendees were surprised to hear that the majority of the farm is heavy clay soil – stereotypically not the ideal type for outwintering cattle! As the farm lies on the banks of the River Thames, in winter it is not uncommon for much of the ground to be under water, so the 70 cows and calves are outwintered on 162ha of the farms higher parkland ground. Outwintering as one big group means that calves stay with the cows until they are weaned at 10 months old, a gradual process first using weaning nose tags to stop the milk intake, followed by full separation a month or two later. The key to outwintering this number of cattle is cell grazing and grass utilisation, focusing specifically on measuring two things: animal impact and time.

Working with McDonalds, FAI are trialling a 4 year Adaptive Multi Paddock grazing project. Unlike general mob grazing, this system incorporates a whole year, pre-planned grazing plan, which maps out recovery periods of set fields, movement and stocking rate of each grazing ‘cell’ and the available forage within each cell.

As a general rule, in the spring/summer growing season they are aiming for a 50% grass utilisation within each cell before the cattle are moved on. This ensures that there is still enough residual grass left behind to encourage biodiversity and enough green vegetated material to photosynthesise and draw carbon back down into the soil. Animals will never stay in the same cell for a period longer than 4 days – this avoids animals grazing new regrowth which will start around day 5.

In contrast, during the winter months the system aims to graze a higher percentage of grass within smaller cells. This is when the grass is more mature, brown and decaying (carbon rich) and at this point, the aim is for the cattle to trample more grass back into the ground to help build the organic matter levels and lock down carbon. The ultimatum is that the cattle must still be moved frequently enough to ensure that they do not poach the cell, but they also need a high enough feed intake at a time when grass is not growing. This is when you require what FAI call ‘ghost acres’ – moved/bought in food in the form of hay.  At FAI the winter formula worked out at a cell size of 0.4ha, for 70 cows and calves, given 4 bales of hay and moved every 24-48 hours. The advantage of the supplementary hay is that not only is it feed, but it is also a source of carbon. The hay which is trampled back into the ground feeds soil microbes and helps to build the layer of humus within soils. A key element of this ‘bale graze’ system is that the hay should never lay thicker than 10cm, this prevents the ground beneath being at risk of anaerobic digestion as opposed to the desired aerobic process. Bales are set out ready in the Autumn before the ground gets too wet for machinery. Last winter FAI set out 644 bales into 161 cells.

bale grazing faiPhoto: Silas Hedley-Lawrence FAI farm manager

Currently the cows are a mix of Salers and native Aberdeen Angus. TB has been a problem and this year they lost 30 breeding cows which meant that the stocking density in each grazing cell was lower than 100 cows and calves/0.4ha rate which they had originally planned for.  

Going forward FAI hope to breed away from the ‘leggy’ Salers, concluding that the native Angus are smaller cows which require less energy and feed to produce the same sized calf. Cows are crossed back to a commercial Angus to ensure they still meet the desired finishing times. When FAI started the AMP grazing project, cattle were finishing at 28 months. Now 3 years into the project, cattle are finishing at around 20 months without any concentrates, usually at an average deadweight of 320kg and graded at 03+. Finishing animals are averaging 0.9kg daily liveweight gain over their lifetime.  

FAI showed figures from the AHDB that the average suckler herd in the UK is currently 28 cows. Based on figures from AHDB, housing costs are circa £2.40/cow/day for a 600kg suckler cow, and comparing this to FAI farm costings on outwintering the same cow at £0.72/cow/day there is a saving of £1.68/cow/day.

For a 180-day winter that equates to a saving of £302.40/cow or £8467.20 for the whole herd (based on 28 cows).

The clear downside for many farmers was the reduced stocking rate per ha for this system. The counter argument from FAI was the increased rate of carbon sequestration which demonstrates a true ‘regenerative’ farming practice, and that the lower level of inputs meant a lower stocking density could be justified. Although in practice outwintering cattle is not an option for every farmer, some opinions at the FAI open day were certainly swayed.

For any farmer wondering if outwintering could be a viable system on their farm, FAI encourage 4 themes to first be considered:

  • The current health of the soil, the plant species within the ley and the tree/hedgerow canopy of the grazing area.
  • The way in which you should manage the grazing period, planning for how often the cattle should be moved, mapping out their required feed intakes, and considering the required recovery period of the ley.
  • The costings of an outwintering system vs. an indoor system on each individual farming enterprise.
  • The welfare of the animals in that system, which should of course always take priority.

For further information, a helpful video from FAI can be accessed here.  FAI also run regular open days such as the event described above, so keep an eye out on their website and social media channels.