Root crops to provide cost-effective winter feed are an integral part of mid-Wales upland sheep farmer Rob Powell’s strategy to make more from less.
Alongside increased grassland reseeding and the use of progressive sheep, forage crops including fodder beet, stubble turnips and swedes are boosting performance for sheep farmer Rob Powell, Blaenbwch, Builth Wells.
Blaenbwch extends to 275 hectares (680 acres) of severely disadvantaged upland and has traditionally supported more than 2,000 breeding ewes.
Flock size has been increasing since improvements to forage supply and sheep genetics began and has now reached about 2,600 ewes, with a proportion being hill breeds that are put to either Aberdale or Aberfield rams to produce a cross.
These cross-breds are then bred to Abermax or Aberblack terminal sires to produce finished lambs for a range of markets.
Swedes, which Mr Powell calculates will feed in-lamb ewes for a 100-day winter for as little as £3/ewe, are particularly favoured for the way sheep perform off them, as well as their return on investment.
Mr Powell says: “Swedes cost us about £150-£160/acre to grow, which is about half the cost of growing fodder beet, as the seed is less and there are fewer sprays involved.
“We aim to drill by the middle of June and tend to pick a dry field for swedes because they will withstand drought better. We like the variety Triumph because it gets away well and reaches canopy closure quickly, then produces a crop the sheep do really well on.”
Crops of swedes are usually direct drilled with an Aitchison drill into a sprayed-off grass ley at a seed rate of 2kg/ha (0.8kg/acre).
Fields have generally received chicken muck, so phosphate and potash are only applied as necessary, and soil pH is checked to ensure it is as close to 5.8 as possible, and bagged nitrogen is always an important application.
Mr Powell says: “We apply 125kg N/ha at the time of drilling, then the same amount again at the three-leaf stage. This is not a big additional cost, but can double the crop’s potential.
“We will also spread some slug pellets as we drill. It is then important to keep an eye on slug populations and apply some more around field edges if necessary.”
Swedes and fodder beet are grown to provide a maintenance ration for in-lamb ewes from late December though, until lambing, while stubble turnips also provide additional forage.
Growing a range of crops in this way spreads risk and, due to varying drilling dates, helps with workloads and availability of grass.
Mr Powell says: “We aim to drill the fodder beet in early May, swedes by the middle of June and stubble turnips in August. This staggered establishment works well in terms of overall management and is certainly beneficial in terms of ensuring we have enough grass at critical times.”
All ewes have a mineral bolus, which includes iodine, as swedes are low in this trace element, but otherwise Mr Powell explains the only other management needed is the provision of a run-back area and good water supply.
He says: “I find ewes prefer swedes to other root crops and tend to do better on them. It is a simple and relatively low-cost system that works for us.”
Ewes will receive baled silage when they come off roots and come inside to lamb, with only cross-breds having concentrates from about three weeks before.
Lambing starts in mid-March and runs through to mid-April. Improved grassland is available for ewes and lambs from turnout, with rotationally grazed leys containing high sugar rye-grass, red clover and perennial chicory, supporting good lamb growth rates in the early season.
This allows some lambs to be finished in May and June at about 32kg for the ethnic market. The change in direction with genetics is resulting in cross-bred breeding ewes with a mature bodyweight of about 65-70kg, which Mr Powell finds to be good hardy ewes.
This is a key factor in allowing increased stocking rates. Ewes are also more prolific, typically scanning at about 180-190 per cent, and as there is less requirement for flushing, this has freed up land that can now be used as seasonal grazing for ewe lambs coming off the hill.
Abermax and Aberblack terminal sires, which have replaced continental breeds, are also contributing, with finished lambs reaching target weights earlier.
Overall, with improved genetics, more productive grassland and root crops providing very low-cost winter feed, Mr Powell is on target to keep production costs down at a level that keeps his business sustainable.
While expanding the farmed area may not be possible, boosting efficiency across the existing unit most certainly is.