Germinal grassland expert David Little examines how sustainability has driven profit for James Henderson of Seafields Farm, County Down.
Photo credit: Farmers Weekly
Farm facts: Seafields Farm, County Down
- Farm focus: Beef and sheep
- Farming 150 acres (60 hectares)
- 500 ml average rainfall for the past two years
- Finishing 90 dairy-beef heifers annually
- 0.7 t/head reduced concentrates
- 0% – mortality in the last batch of 90 cbeef heifers
- 92% of lambs grading within specification
- 430 kg/ha cattle liveweight produced
- Buying Autumn-born British Blue calves from market aged 2-3 weeks and finishing them off grass by 24 months.
- Lambing 250 Rogue x Texel ewes and 50 ewe lamb replacements put to Primera tups.
- Closed flock – crisscrossing between Texel and Rogue to breed replacements.
- Lambs are sold through Tesco Sustainable Lamb Group while heifers are sold to ABP.
Situated on a former WW2 airfield, Seafields is, fittingly, exposed to the combative elements of the Irish Sea. Measuring approximately 150 acres, the fields meet the sand and sea.
The surrounding land is highly sought-after, meaning the farm is unlikely to expand. Ultimately, the challenge for James and his family is to maximise production from the land they do have.
James is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather on this fourth-generation family farm. Since focusing more closely on grassland management in 2015/16, James and his family have increased profitability and stock numbers without increasing inputs.
Brenda, James' wife, handles the administrative side of the business and provides support on-farm when needed. His son Scott has been made a partner in the business since completing an agriculture course at CAFRE Greenmount and together they are focused on bringing down costs while maintaining output.
This setup has been recognised in the wider industry, with James and Seafields nominated for Grassland Manager of the Year at the 2023 Farmers Weekly Awards.
Photo credit: Farmers Weekly
Knowledge driving success
James is very active in the wider NI agricultural industry, maintaining an on-site weather station to generate data for Grasscheck NI, alongside information on grass production.
Seafields also serves as a technical demonstration farm for the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and James is also involved with a business development group alongside other farmers.
James has also participated in a soil health initiative spearheaded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), receiving free soil analysis. He is also helping other farms improve grazing proficiency through his involvement in demonstration networks and research.
On the climate front, Seafields is part of the Beacon Farm Network, where the farm's carbon footprint is measured, which James sees as essential.
Excellent grassland management
Seafields mainly comprises free-draining, sandy-loam soils prone to drought and nutrient loss. However, those losses are offset by using free nutrients from seaweed to reinvigorate soils.
On average, leys last 10 years and any that fall below that average will be reseeded. Grass is sprayed off and composted, with seaweed and manure applied before the field is ploughed and sown with a break crop of winter barley in October. The field is then returned to grass after harvest.
The inclusion of multi-species swards and red clover and ryegrasses in leys is lowering artificial nitrogen use. Fertiliser use has remained at 75 kg N/ha after each silage cut and 20 kg N/ha per grazing.
“We are currently using Germinal's red clover mixture and have found it to be an excellent product. It's very much part of our plans going forward as we seek to reduce our nitrogen usage and increase our homegrown protein.”
Only red clover and multi-species recieve slurry, which is obtained from a neighbouring dairy farm. Slurry is applied to silage ground using low-emissions spreading equipment. Applying granular lime beforehand and CAN fertiliser to reseeds has helped lift soil pH to 6.5, with the entire farm's soil tested annually.
Surplus grass is baled rather than attempting to graze higher covers. This quality forage is fed during periods of grass shortages and in winter. Along with taking three quality cuts of silage, this has helped lower concentrate use from 1.3 t/head to 0.6 t/head.
The farm has transitioned from set stocking to rotational grazing. By pre-mowing and fencing off half a paddock at a time, utilisation has greatly improved.
James also rotates silage ground and grazing paddocks, explaining this has helped maintain his wedge and optimises flexibility if faced with weather challenges.
He explained that this also keeps the dock population down and helps manage the worm burden with faecal egg counts (FECs) taken to inform worming policies.
Improved livestock production
Effective grassland management has trebled farm profitability in nine years through increasing stocking rates by 40% and lowering inputs by doubling grass production from 6 t DM/ha to 12 t DM/ha.
“Ten years ago, I would have described this farm as one where we kept beef and sheep. Today, I would say this is a grassland farm where beef and sheep keep us,” James says.
Calves are brought in at two weeks old in October and November and reared on milk powder in a purpose-built shed until weighing 100 kg. They spend their first winter on a home-mix of barley and soya hulls before transitioning to red clover silage ahead of turnout in March.
Stock classes match grass growth well with lambs finished as the demand from cattle intensifies. Excellent grass utilisation of 86% is achieved by pre-mowing every cattle paddock from the third rotation and every other rotation thereafter. Post-weaning, fit ewes follow lambs.
Stock get weighed at regular intervals and ewes are regularly body condition scored to ensure they are at the target BCS 3. This supports future grazing and breeding decisions with sire performance compared.
Days to slaughter has consistently lowered year-on-year since 2016 thanks to improved grassland management and genetic selection of sheep. Lambs from birth to weaning grew at 290 g/day in 2023 while second-year heifers are averaging 1.1 kg daily.