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Growing plantain pastures to finish lambs at altitude

John and Sarah Yeomans invited people to visit Llwyn y Brain Farm to see how they have been trying to get the most from their ground to benefit their business. Laura Bowyer reports from Powys.



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Following the devastating winter weather of 2013 and faced with severe subsidy cuts, John and Sarah Yeomans recognised something had to be done differently at Llwyn y Brain Farm, Adfa, Powys, to protect its future.


Llwyn y Brain is a 94-hectare (232-acre) holding, plus 21.4ha (53 acres) of rented ground. Land is from 230-435 metres (750-1,420ft) above sea level, with livestock centre stage.


With cost control becoming increasingly important, the couple decided it was essential to produce more from their land.


The farm has 53.4ha (132 acres) of improved hill ground which the couple are experimenting with to gauge whether they can boost its profitability by rotationally grazing their lambs on a plantain and clover ley.


This June, 4.9ha (12 acres) of plantain was sown at about 430m (1,400ft), split into four equal paddocks with a water trough in the middle. Lambs were put onto the plantain on August 30.


Mr Yeomans said: “The ley was sown at 3kg plantain, 2kg white clover and 1kg red clover per acre, costing £49 per acre in seed. Once all work was carried out, costs came to £194/acre to establish it.”


The farm is in its second year of rotationally grazing grass. To divide the rotation paddock, solar-powered white electric fences were used which are more visible to sheep.


Mr Yeomans said: “Research has shown this grazing method encourages 25 per cent more grass utilisation. With land at £8,000-£10,000/acre, investing a couple of thousand pounds into electric fencing could be really beneficial.


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cost

Cost

“If you had 100 acres, put it to rotational grazing and produced 25 per cent more grass, it would be the same as set-stocking on 25 extra acres, which could otherwise cost £250,000.”

 

Independent grass specialist Chris Duller said: “In rotational grazing we aim for increased quality at a higher intake.”

 

Behind the wire there are just short of 200 Beulah, Mule and continental lambs, drawn from across the farm – some close to finishing at more than 39kg and lighter lambs under 28kg. It is hoped the plantain’s qualities will help these lambs reach optimum slaughter weights.

 

Lambs are kept on each paddock for six days. This is based on available forage of 1,400kg/ha, with 20 per cent forage waste and a lamb intake of 1kg dry matter (DM) per day.

 

Mr Duller said: “We need to get lambs finished faster, so they eat less feed. They needs lots of forage intake and it has to be high quality.

 

“A 30kg lamb needs to be eating 3 per cent of its body weight a day. We should be aiming for lambs gaining 200g each day, about 1.5kg/week. A lamb needs about 6-7MJ of energy each day to stay alive, with targeted weight gain requiring lambs ingest at least 11MJ metabolisable energy daily.

 

“Lamb yield per hectare and individual killing out percentages go up if using rotational grazing, although the growth rate of individual lambs may be down.

 

“We need to minimise the time lambs spend looking for bites. To achieve this, they need rye-grass, clover and other forages.”

 

The plantain was chosen to introduce new tastes and textures, potentially improving forage intakes. It is also thought to have mild medicinal and anthelmintic properties.

 

Although being on high, exposed ground, the ley seems to be thriving on the peaty hill. Mr Duller said those who were looking at planting alternative forage crops, such as plantain, should firstly ensure their soil was fit for purpose.

 

longevity

Longevity

He said: “Plantain is 11 per cent DM, so they need to be eating 9kg each day. It is full of fibre and decreases the number of lambs with mucky back-ends.”

 

As the crop had not been widely grown in the UK for any considerable time, the longevity of a plantain ley is uncertain. However, those present who had experience of the crop suggested a life of at least six years, depending on how it is managed.

 

The ley should be well grazed to keep the crop down but it should not be grazed too hard as this would hamper regrowth.

 

It would grow well into winter, with more spring and autumn growth than chicory, which was often incorporated into leys for similar reasons. The plant stopped growing when soil temperatures dip below 8degC.

 

Although it was early days for growing plantain in this country, it was believed the crop could be higher yielding than chicory, more easily managed and would not bolt so quickly.

 

Helen Mathieu, Germinal area sales manager, said: “Farmers have been growing plantain in New Zealand for quite some time, due to its drought-resisting qualities. The forage crop may be well suited to drought-prone areas, such as Kent, East Anglia and Sussex.

 

“The Kiwis grow plantain as a monoculture, but we have to grow it as a ley in this country as we need the clover to fix nitrogen. Sheep also like a bit of a mixture of things to graze.”


Plantain facts

  • High in protein, typically 19.8-28.1 per cent crude protein
  • Fibrous forage, allowing the animal to ruminate
  • Full of D-value, tannins
  • and minerals
  • Contributes to a better
  • soil structure in ground than rye-grass
  • Mild anthelmintic properties
  • 11 per cent dry matter
  • Drought-resisting qualities

Farm facts

  • Llwyn y Brain extends to 93.9 hectares (232 acres) owned, with 53.4ha (132 acres) of largely improved hill land, 53ha (21.4 acres) of additional rented land
  • Mainly rotationally-grazed grassland, with arable silage and stubble turnips
  • 495 ewes – mainly Beulah and 160 Beulah ewe lambs
  • Ewes bred to Beulah and Bluefaced Leicester rams, ewe lambs bred to Charollais and Roussin rams
  • Finished lambs sold deadweight
  • 73 spring-calving cows and 14 replacement heifers – pedigree Limousin, Limousin cross, British Blue cross, British White cross
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