With widespread high rainfall having hit many regions in recent weeks, those spring grazing livestock may be looking at alternative management options.
Extreme wet weather conditions recently have led many producers to make changes to their usual management systems to make sure animals are getting their intake requirements.
Farmers who had attended AHDB Challenge sheep events, held at several regions throughout the UK in recent weeks, said their land had suffered from poaching, with many having to house ewes early or utilise fields not normally allocated to in-lamb ewes which will have an impact on grass available for turnout.
The prolonged wet conditions and serious flooding in some parts, had also meant some were now facing a situation where ground was not ready to turn ewes and lambs on to.
Speaking after the events, AHDB knowledge exchange manager, Nerys Wright, said appropriate action would vary given the varying situations around the county.
Aside from those fields which have experienced very extreme flooding, she said that milder weather earlier in the season had meant there was grass growth in some areas, but with it being so wet; sheep were struggling to meet their daily dry matter requirements with grass alone.
Rather than grazing the ground too hard at this stage, Ms Wright advised trying to stockpile grass over winter in readiness for spring turnout which could also lead to cost savings in supplementary feed.
This might be achieved by reducing stocking rate on a larger area, housing ewes earlier or incorporating some supplementary feed whether that is concentrate or forage.
Maintaining as much ewe body condition as possible in the last six weeks of pregnancy, rather than trying to supplement post-pregnancy, was also far more efficient in terms of meeting a ewes energy requirements.
Speaking at one of the events, independent sheep consultant Liz Genever said: “It is cheaper to feed a ewe when requirements are just 8MJ/day for maintenance rather than 25MJ/day in early lactation.”
At turnout, assuming ewes are turned out a few days after lambing, weather permitting, Ms Genever advised if possible to separate ewes to help match requirements, for example, ewes with twins and ewes with singles.
She recommended a stocking rate of 10-17 ewes/hectare (4-7/acre) based on whether they are twins or singles.
“The aim is to turnout out onto 3-4cm of grass, if it is growing, or higher if demand is greater than supply, with the main aim to give ewes the opportunity to eat as much as possible.
If it is lower than 4cm ewes will need extra feed, but if higher than 8 cm quality will start to deteriorate and there will be wastage.”
In instances where turnout was not possible and ewes and lambs were having to be housed for longer as a result of the weather, making sure ewes were being fed in-line with their post-lambing energy requirements was crucial.
Ms Wright said: “Energy requirements will lift massively in late pregnancy and early lactation, going from 8MJ/day for maintenance to 18MJ/day as the ewe approaches lambing to 25MJ/day in early lactation.
“Therefore a pre-lambing diet will not be sufficient for a lactating ewe, and it is crucial that if she is being housed any longer than about four days after pregnancy, that energy requirements are met for optimum milk production which allows lambs to thrive.”
“This could be achieved by making sure there is access good quality ad-lib forage, as well as plenty of water, which is equally important and could see requirement up to as much as four litres/day in early lactation.”
Ms Genever also spoke about instances where turn-out was possible, but where grass availability was lacking or where there may still be a lot of water.
She said: “Ideally, we are aiming for no supplementation at grass, but do not be afraid to feed if necessary.
Particularly if ewes have been housed for a long time they will need some transitional feeding of forage or concentrate to allow the rumen time to adjust.
“Feeding fodder beet at grass can also be useful in terms of balancing energy with the high protein in grass.”
Young or thin sheep may also need supplementation which could be achieved by creep feeding their lambs or ewes on poorer fields to boost lamb growth rates.
She reiterated that, from three weeks of age, lambs start eating more grass and more creep, if it is available.
The energy lambs get from the ewe’s milk starts to drop after peak milk production and a lamb’s rumen
develops. By 12 weeks age, lambs get very little of their daily energy from the ewe’s milk.
Weaning earlier could give ewes a better chance of meeting energy requirements to gain BCS before tupping, if required.
Dairy farmers were also reporting a mixed picture, said AHDB grass and forage scientist, Siwan Howatson.
With those in areas which had experienced extreme flooding not able to get cattle out to grass at all, while others were able to access some fields and had begun to make their way through their spring rotation planner.
Similarly, Ms Howatson advised farmers to be mindful of bridging the gap between dry matter requirement and availability, which depending on the farm system, could be achieved via buffer feeding with forage or concentrates.
Early results for grass quality, gathered alongside other grass growth data by farms across Great Britain taking part in AHDB’s forage for knowledge programme, are showing average dry matter to be 18.3 per cent DM, which is just higher than the 17.1 per cent DM last year.
Despite this, and with a lot of water still around for many, Ms Howatson said she was expecting many farms would not be able to stick to their spring rotation planner this year, but advised where possible to continue to try and utilise grass, even if this meant moving away from the usual management system.
She said: “Walk around your grazing platform and make the best use of what you have to get out if conditions allow.
“Consider using multiple gateways or electric fencing to create a trackway along a hedgerow for cows in and out of fields.
“Farms with good grazing infrastructure could also consider on-off grazing to maximise intakes and avoid long-term field damage to limit poaching because of the wet conditions.
“The idea behind giving cows their allocation of grass over two sittings, for example grazing between 7.30am-11am and 5pm-8pm, is to make the most of the periods of the day when grazing intakes will be at their highest.”
“The key is to let cows to grass with an appetite and avoid buffer feeding where possible, or time feeding so there is break before turn out again.
“But factors like weather and grass quality will mean a judgment call is needed on whether intake requirements are being met and the degree of buffer feeding required.”
The Environment Agency has also provided advice online for farms which may be experiencing issues around slurry storage as a result of the concentrated high volume of rain.
This covers advice on temporary storage, reducing slurry volume and what to do if you need to spread to land.
In instances at risk of breaching legal requirements, the Environment Agency can be contacted on 03708 506 506, or out of hours or in the event of an emergency on 0800 80 70 60.