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Options to consider in a difficult grass growing year

With unsettled weather playing havoc with grass growth and future cropping plans, there will be plenty to discuss at Grassland UK. Katie Jones reports.

Nick Hulme
Nick Hulme

Enhanced stress tolerance and persistence in difficult growing conditions could mean herbal leys provide farmers with an alternative to more conventional rye-grasses.

 

Herbal leys are integral to the production of pure New Zealand Suffolk, Texel and Sufftex (Suffolk cross Texel) rams at Pikesend Farm, Ellesmere, Shropshire, which is run by the Hulme family.

 

Having bred rams for 65 years, the family took a change in direction in 2006, creating the EasyRams business based entirely on New Zealand genetics.

 

Robyn Hulme says: “We used to produce prize-winning Suffolk sheep, but after the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, sheep numbers halved and the popularity of the Suffolk declined.

 

Robust

“We felt we had to change to producing a more robust ram which would quickly serve a large number of ewes, be long living and produce easily born lambs which thrive and finish easily off grass.

 

“We sold 15 rams in 2007 and 500 rams – lambs and yearlings – in 2017, with 125 new customers last year.”

About 850 pure New Zealand ewes now lamb from April 1 on the 265-hectare (655-acre) farm on variable but mainly light land. The lambs are weaned at 12 weeks of age and never creep fed. They rotationally graze in groups of 250 behind electric fencing in 2ha (5-acre) blocks, moving to the next paddock after four to five days. They return to the grazed area three weeks later.

 

Grass is cut for silage when it grows faster than the sheep can eat it, keeping the quality of future grazing high.

Grassland UK

Held on a working farm in Somerset, Grassland UK covers every aspect of forage production, from seeds to feeds, with machinery demonstrations, a technical advice area, seminars, silage clamp demonstrations and trade stands from all sectors of the industry.

 

When: May 10, 9am-4pm
Where: Bridge Farm and Bagborough Farm, adjoining the Bath and West showground, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, BA4 6QN.
Tickets: Adult – £20 (£17 advance); student - £15. Advance tickets will be available until May 9
Details on: www.bathandwest.com/grassland-uk/

Much of the grazing area has been put into a herbal ley, a variation of Landmark Extreme, with added chicory, plantain and yarrow. It also contains a late perennial rye-grass, cocksfoot, Timothy, meadow fescue and a significant proportion of deep rooting festuloliums, including lofa, which perform well in drought conditions. It also has a high white clover content.

 

Robyn’s son Nick says: “Getting the highest quality grazing grass into the lambs is critical. Our challenge is to get them big enough to sell as ram lambs by October.

 

“Last June and July was really dry but with the wide range of plants growing in the mix, there was still plenty of food to feed them.

 

“This mixture, and particularly the clover which really kicks in during late summer, is perfect for them. They like the diversity and the chicory helps keep worm counts low.”

 

The herbal ley was planted in spring 2016 as part of a Higher Level Stewardship scheme and is expected to last up to 10 years.

 

Stubble

 

After a catch crop of stubble turnips and kale had been grazed, muck was applied before it was ploughed. The seed was sown at 40kg/ha through a combination drill and nitrogen at 37.5kg/ha was applied. It established quickly and lambs were grazing it in June.

 

“Essentially we can offer grass-fed rams which can help commercial sheep farmers produce high value meat lambs at minimum cost,” says Robyn.

1. Keep your goals in mind when making silage

With milk production from forage remaining stubbornly static, Biotal technical support manager Roy Eastlake believes farmers must challenge what they are trying to achieve with grass silage.

 

He says it is important to consider three factors when thinking about silage: yield, energy and dry matter (DM).


He argues quantity all too often dominates decision making, with success defined by ‘having enough’ and keeping ‘clamps full’ but this disregards the quality attributes.

 

He says: “Consider what happens when a plant matures. You certainly get more bulk to satisfy the quantity requirement but quality declines. At its peak, a grass plant will be about 12.8MJ/kg DM, but grass silage typically averages about 10.6MJ.

 

“Not only do mature heavy crops have lower energy but they can also be harder to wilt, making it more challenging to hit the DM target.”

 

Mr Eastlake believes systems of more frequent, shorter interval cutting offer a change in thinking.

 

He says cutting at 28-day intervals, when grass is at the flag leaf stage, will give a cut crop closer to 12MJ.

 

Then, by operating a silage-in-a-day policy, only cutting what will be picked up the same day, respiration and field losses can be reduced to preserve energy. With smaller cuts on the ground at any one time, the risk of crop damage due to rainfall is also reduced, with more opportunity to time cutting to avoid rain.


“Lighter crops will dry out more quickly and more evenly to hit target dry matter, and by following good crop management, including the use of crop and condition-specific inoculants, we can deliver well-fermented and palatable forage.


“The more frequent cutting combined with leaving a decent stubble can then exploit the rapid growth potential of grass, allowing target total quantities to be reached, albeit from more cuts.”

2. Improving silage-making techniques

As farmers strive to produce more milk and meat from home-grown grass, forage preservation experts, Volac, will be showcasing latest techniques to help make consistently better silage.

 

Among these will be a new update on its ‘cut to clamp’ initiative, launched last year to help producers get more from silage by focusing closely on six key areas – cutting, wilting, harvesting, treating, clamping and feeding.

 

New for 2018, the initiative features specific updates for the ‘multi-cut’ method of making silage.

3. New Landmark Spectrum

New to their portfolio of mixes and growing on the Oliver Seeds stand in Field 10 will be Landmark Spectrum. This herbal ley mix has up to 18 different species, including cocksfoot, Timothy, sainfoin, bird’s foot trefoil, sheep’s parsley and yarrow, plus red, white and crimson clovers.

 

Oliver Seeds general manager Rod Bonshor says: “Multi-species swards have a lot of advantages over straight rye-grass leys.

 

“Enhanced stress tolerance and persistence in difficult growing conditions, greater root mass and depth, earlier spring and later autumn growth, more palatability, trace elements and minerals, and some of the plants have anthelmintic properties.

 

“Herbal leys will not yield as high as rye-grass and it is difficult to control weeds chemically, but on many farms they are now being grown and used effectively.”

 

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