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Introducing livestock: Picking the right species

Continuing our series on integrating livestock to an arable rotation, farmers need to decide on the type of stock they are going to introduce, the breed and the intended market.

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Whether a valuable by-product of a grass ley or an enterprise in its own right, the type of livestock an arable farm decides to introduce should take into account marketability, ease of management, labour demands and infrastructure.


Where arable farmers opt to provide grazing for a third party as opposed to investing in livestock, the choice of stock is largely dependent on demand from local livestock enterprises for short-term grazing, according to Simon Parker, of Newcastle University.


If demand is strong, the arable producer may be able to be more selective in what type of stock they introduce, taking into account potential income and characteristics of each type of stock.


See also: VIDEO: Having livestock without the hassle


It is common for the landowner to be paid a headage payment based on the number of animals grazing the land within a given time period. In this situation, knowing the number of livestock the land can support is important in predicting potential income, says AHDB forage specialist Bill Reilly.


For example, a set area of land can typically support around nine times more store lambs than store cattle of the same age, according to AHDB. Therefore, income could vary depending on the type and size of stock.


Since improved soil health is a key motive to integrate livestock, arable producers should also consider how the characteristic of different species are likely to affect their land, says Mr Parker.

“Soil damage may be more associated with cattle, while sheep are generally considered more beneficial. However, both sheep and cattle are both capable of causing damage in the wrong conditions.”


Therefore, those with heavier soil types or land more prone to waterlogging, may want to consider how access is managed most effectively he adds, especially if they are to graze outside over winter.


“Soil damage may be more associated with cattle, while sheep are generally considered more beneficial. However, both sheep and cattle are both capable of causing damage in the wrong conditions.”


Therefore, those with heavier soil types or land more prone to waterlogging, may want to consider how access is managed most effectively he adds, especially if they are to graze outside over winter.


Farmers looking for ‘minimal hassle’ when it comes to livestock management are somewhat limited to commercial animals as opposed to breeding stock, which tend to be associated with a higher labour demand.


Mr Parker says: “If the intention is simply to introduce grass into a rotation, and therefore to utilise the grass effectively as possible, then it is likely the manager will consider a flying herd or flock, fattening or finishing stores, without having breeding stock on-site.”


If the arable farmer is interested in a longer term strategy and decides to invest in their own stock, there is far more to consider.


“As soon as an arable farmer decides to introduce stock as a means of providing a direct income, there is a lot more to consider. Have you got a market and if so, what is that market? How and when are you going to sell them?”


While the energy value of short-term grass leys tend to be suited to finishing stock, for Lincolnshire farmer Alan Brown rearing lambs to store condition allows him to focus on his arable enterprise during harvest.


He says: “We introduced sheep about five years ago and for the first couple of years, we sold everything in the fat. But in order to sell lambs which were most cost-efficient, it meant weighing lambs once-a-week to ensure they had reached sufficient weight and condition.


“In summer we found ourselves missing opportunities for combining and cultivating when the weather was good, because we were having to regularly get lambs in to weigh.


“Now, we sell everything in the store, so I can send lambs away in large batches before they reach 40kg. This means I get everything sold much earlier so I do not have lambs to worry about for the best part of the autumn drilling period.”

Labour demand

Labour demand

Labour demand may be a key factor in deciding what type of stock to invest in. “If you have a herd of steers you were rearing from store to finish, they may not need a great deal of intervention,” says Mr Parker.


“As soon as you get into breeding animals, then you have got the implications of lambing and calving, with sheep you have got shearing to think about, so breeding stock generally require greater labour input.”


The effect this could have on labour will differ depending on the business. “On some farms, it might be labour which is not used. For example, if an arable farmer is applying a full-time member of staff but struggles to find them enough work over winter, having a herd of cows to calve may be better utilisation.


“But equally, lambing time is likely to fall when arable farmers are under pressure to sow spring crops and to get crops sprayed, so it will depend on the circumstances individual businesses find themselves in.”


See also: Spraying better in a busy spring


Infrastructure can dictate which type of stock to invest in since cattle are often housed over winter. However, Mr Parker says there are alternative options.


“If I was keeping cattle, I would be expecting to produce some kind of conserved forage because I would expect those cattle to be indoors over winter, while with the sheep, they may well be out over winter.


“However, cattle can manage outside. Their growth rates may be affected and it is possible they could do more damage to soil structure as a consequence of being on wet ground, but so long as the ground is free-draining, it is a possibility.”


Whether out-wintering cattle or attempting to minimise the workload associated with livestock, breed selection can be influential. Opting for low-input breeds such as the Romney ewe or belted Galloway cattle can save on labour and reduce costs, although their output may be lower than some European breeds.


Investing in higher value niche breeds such as Wagyu cattle may enable a producer to reap the benefit of a premium product without the management associated with a large-scale livestock enterprise, he adds.

Using leys to build soil fertility

Using leys to build soil fertility

Organic farmer John Pawsey utilises diverse grass and clover leys as a means of boosting soil fertility on his 645-hectare (1,594-acre) farm in Suffolk.


Being organic, this practice is crucial in boosting soil nutrient levels to support crop growth.


While at first, Mr Pawsey used the fertility leys as a mulch, whereby the crop was cut four to five times a year and left to rot on the soil surface, in 2014 he introduced 500 New Zealand Romney ewes to graze the leys.


Since the Romney is a low input breed, Mr Pawsey is able to reduce the amount of time dedicated to looking after stock.


He says: “We chose the Romney as it meant we could lamb outside, the breed can survive in an extensive system, they have good resistance to worms, good foot health and generally are low input.”


To further ensure the diversification does not detract from the main arable enterprise, Mr Pawsey employs a shepherd to look after the flock.


Introducing sheep has meant the leys now provide additional income through the sale of finished lambs to local wholesalers, while the arable side of the business can reap the benefits of increased soil nutrition and improved soil structure.


Mr Pawsey now keeps the leys intact for an extra six months to extend the period of time where the grass and clover mix is growing and capturing nitrogen.


“We were using an 18-month mulch ley, but we felt this should be extended in order to improve soil fertility.


“We were spending £15,000 on cutting leys, but now we are mulching much less mowing costs have reduced significantly.”


Mr Pawsey hopes to boost sheep numbers to 1,000 in order to try and reduce the amount of mulching even further.


To give the leys the best start on his heavy clay land, Mr Pawsey opts to under-sow the grass-clover seed mix.


“To establish small seeds on clay they have to go into fine seedbeds and it is important to warm soils with a firming roll after sowing to ensure good seed to soil contact. To have the best chance of creating these conditions, we ideally under-sow leys into spring barley.


“We aim for a mix which is as diverse as possible to spread the risk of one or more species failing and to take advantage of different rooting depths to help condition our soils.


“Since we are looking primarily to boost fertility, we typically use more clover in the mix than what livestock farmers may use, but it is a balance because we have to think about the requirement of the livestock as well,” says Mr Pawsey.

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