By Karen Stewart, SAC nutritionist and Robert Ramsay, SAC beef consultant

After a long winter, many breathe a sigh of relief as cattle are turned out to grass, but while this is a welcome break from winter feeding routines, freeing up time for other on-farm activities, it is also a great opportunity to make more from grass – the cheapest feed available, if managed correctly.

The Growth Path project by AHDB Beef and Lamb (2016) showed that average summer growth rates for cattle were 0.8kg/head/day on well managed pasture, on poor pasture less than 0.4kg/head/day average, with both groups having much poorer performance later in the summer when grass quality wanes. In contrast, farms practising rotational grazing can achieve 1.1-1.2kg/head/day average driven by maintaining the grass quality later in the season.

Achieving good quality grass in the backend requires attention to detail in the spring. Once grass has headed quality is diminished and productivity is lost for the season, so managing the grazing pressure to suit the conditions is key with the right amount of mouths at the right time. To maintain grass growth throughout the season keep the length between 6-8cm, when it is also at it's most nutritious and digestible. It takes a bit of managing but the benefits are huge!

Rotational grazing doesn’t need to be complicated and can simply be done by reducing field size or using an electric wire or by moving round existing fields – allowing fields that are grazed down to rest and keeping enough grazing pressure on fields that are growing fast.

If grass is growing faster than the stock are eating it, quality can be maintained by taking a field, or part of a field out for silage. The silage made from these paddocks is generally excellent quality and will make useful winter feed.

If you are keen to try rotational grazing the Farm Advisory Service Rotational Grazing Guide (Written by Poppy Frater) is a great resource (

Know the aim of your cattle

As well as grassland management, it is also critical to know the type of cattle going to grass to ensure that their nutritional needs are met. Are the cattle going to gain the weight required on pasture? Are they to grow frame or finish? Are they continental or native-type breed?

While all cattle will perform well on well managed grazing systems, future markets must be known and with 400kg carcase limits, attention to detail is key. There are a lot of cattle out there that have performed well through the winter, so consideration must be given to these cattle, and whether grazing them is the right idea. Will they achieve the required level of finish, without ending up out of spec, or, should they be kept in the shed and finished there instead?

In areas where grass quality cannot be maintained due to terrain or other management factors, growing and finishing cattle will need supplemented for additional energy as grass quality tails off later in the summer to maintain growth rates. The timing of this will very much vary from farm to farm and it is important to be aware where grass is plentiful and well managed, concentrates simply substitute grass intakes and make weight gain more expensive.

The level of grass supplementation will depend on:

1) The type of cattle and target growth rates

2) The amount of grass available

3) The growing season and how much grass available

Later in the season, where feeding concentrates are required to compliment grass and maintain gains, a simple rule of thumb to follow is to feed 0.5kg of concentrates per 100kg live weight where grass is moderate and 1kg per 100kg live weight where grass is poor. The composition of the concentrate should be high in energy and moderate for protein (around 13-14% crude protein on a fresh basis) and no more than 0.5kg per 100kg live weight to be fed in a single feed.

If grass is poor, consider finishing cattle (targeting upwards of 1kg daily liveweight gain) inside or push on outside.

If outside and grass is in low supply or of poor quality, then think about putting out an ad-lib hopper with concentrates – take care to introduce feeding slowly and to cattle that have a full belly to avoid gorging and then make sure hoppers do not run out thereafter.

If feeding ad-lib and using outdoor space instead of a shed, it is advisable to have a ring of straw available as long roughage if grass is poor, or on a wet day when cattle will tend to congregate round a feeder rather than graze.

Where ad-lib hoppers are introduced into fields ensure that cattle have been used to being trough fed and work up to ad-lib feeding. Care should be taken in balancing the cereals with protein and minerals as well as considering using a digestible fibre feed (such as sugar beet pulp or soya hulls) to start with. This will make it safer while cattle are transitioning on to ad-lib cereal-based rations.

The beef industry has been under pressure for the last 12 months and while farmers can do very little to change the price they receive for their end product they do have some control over the efficiency of their operations.

The efficiency of the 2020 grazing season will largely be decided by the choices you make in the next few weeks. So, before you throw the doors open and set stock cattle at grass, stop, take time to think about what you are trying to achieve and make a plan for how you are going to get there. By making a few tweaks to your system, you could make a massive difference to growth rates and overall profitability.