After a dry start to the season, grass is starting to grow in Hampshire, as Ian Robertson is in the midst of lambing.
Earlier season lamb losses of about 10 per cent – possibly due to nutritional challenges – have sharpened focus on how to support higher output after environmental schemes end early next year.
Over winter, a system of allocated or ‘cell’ grazing ewes went well.
Mr Robertson says: “These were split in early March, according to scanning results, and set stocked. Singles went on to a cover of 1,000kg DM/hectare, stocked at 980kg ewe liveweight/ha; twin carriers covered 1,500kg DM/ha at 650kg liveweight/ha; and triplets on to 1,500kg DM/ha at 500kg liveweight/ha. For comparison, an average ewe weighs 60kg.”
Triplets and singles were then moved to lambing fields earlier this month with covers of 3,500kg/ha (1,416kg/acre) supporting 6,000kg liveweight/ha (2,428kg liveweight/acre). Twin carriers went on to covers of 4,000kg DM/ha (1,618kg DM/acre) carrying 5,500kg liveweight/ha (2,225kg liveweight/acre).
Mr Robertson says: “Recent rain has helped stimulate grass growth after a dry start to the season, a factor of shallow soils on chalkland.
If turnout fields grow at 20kg DM/ha/day, ewes with lambs should be going out to covers of 1,500kg DM/ha.”
By contrast, a group of 300 ewes which lambed in March – predominately shearlings – suffered with grass growth rates of just 10kg DM/ha/day (4kg DM/acre/day), he says.
Covers were already tight as rented ground had been grazed by horses over winter.
This, combined with a challenge from coccidia and clostridia disease, caused possibly by low intakes of colostrum, increased mortality from 3 per cent to more than 10 per cent for a group of 500 lambs.
He says: “Eight-week weights and total weight of lambs reared per hectare are going to be behind what I would like.”
Mr Robertson is due to sit down with agronomist Mark Shaw of Mole Valley Forage Services to see what can be done to support higher production after our environmental schemes end in February 2016.
To replace some of the £12,000 Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) payment which will be lost, an initial 16ha (40 acres) will be reseeded to provide conserved forage for the following winter, supplies which currently come off at 36ha (90 acres) under HLS.
Mr Robertson says: “The aim is not to ramp-up production, but extend the shoulders of the season. I am not going to be applying lots of artificial fertiliser, but there is a large pile of manure waiting in anticipation. Some of the HLS ground has retained good levels of rye-grass and white clover. P and K indices are good.”
Alterations to environment schemes and changing attitudes towards the potential of grass mean more people are thinking about improving swards.
Before going ahead with a reseed there are four things which are definitely needed, advises Eblex livestock scientist Dr Liz Genever.
These are a soil test, Healthy Grassland Soil structural assessment, a check of the Recommended Grass and Clover List and a nutrient management plan.
Dr Genever says: “A soil test is crucial before contemplating reseeding so producers can understand the adjustments needed to soil fertility to ensure good early growth and to understand if the chosen technique is appropriate.
“The 2015/2016 Recommended Grass and Clover Lists [RGCL] have been updated with 10 new rye-grass varieties. Only grasses and clovers which have undergone at least four years of independent testing are included in the lists.
“They offer grassland farmers an invaluable resource, enabling them to select varieties which will perform well in a particular system.
The performance and characteristics of each variety are detailed within the list to help producers make informed decisions about varieties which might best meet their needs.
“By selecting the appropriate varieties to suit their system or purpose, producers can maximise productivity of their grassland.
“The two factors which affect sward composition are nutrients and management, so if reseeds are not looked after, the sown species will reduce quickly. The genetic potential of new grasses will only be realised by providing sufficient nutrients, which is why a nutrient management plan is so important.”