After just one year of a programme to improve his in-bye grassland, Highland sheep farmer Donald McDonald is already seeing benefits in terms of reduced bought-in feed costs.
Producing Cheviot Mule breeding stock and store lambs on 160 hectares (395 acres) at Taldale, near Thurso, on the exposed northern coast of Scotland, Donald McDonald has 49ha (120 acres) of in-bye land which he is improving by over-seeding 16ha (40 acres) each year starting in 2016.
While selecting the best new varieties for the job is important, success is also being attributed to pan-busting, soil testing and use of specialist over-seeding machinery which does far more than simply broadcast seed.
As a contractor as well as a sheep farmer, Mr McDonald knows his machinery. He is also someone who does his research and is willing to take advice, so the approach he is adopting is well thought-through.
He says: “Our in-bye acreage is heavy clay land, which we run alongside 280 acres of hill. It has been heavily stocked over the years, so there is a high risk of compaction.
“After attending a grassland event, I bought a soil compaction tester and started using it on our ground. I found compaction was an issue in many areas, down to a depth of five to seven inches.
“We bought a four-legged grass sub-soiler and now use this regularly, typically in September. This machine operates down to a depth of 18in and is making a real difference to our ground.”
Having begun to see the benefits of sub-soiling, Mr McDonald began planning an approach to improve the performance of his in-bye land further.
One of the tools he uses successfully off-farm in his contracting work is a Guttler Greenmaster seeding and soil conditioning implement. This single-pass unit will level, scarify, over-seed and roll, with the potential to engage or disengage different elements depending on the job to be done.
In addition to grassland over-seeding, Mr McDonald uses the machine within his landscaping business and points out it has the versatility to work on ploughed ground as well, sowing everything from cereals to clover seed.
He says: “We are on our second machine now, this being a three-metre model which we upgraded to last year. We have a front linkage on the tractor from which we mount shatter boards and tines, and then have another shatter board and two rows of adjustable tines behind. There is then the broadcast seeding unit, plus the Guttler roller which effectively creates the seedbed.
“We need minimum time out of production, given our limited acreage and the ambition of achieving total renewal in three years.
“Having sorted the compaction issues with the deep sub-soiler and addressing any soil nutrient issues with liming and application of compound fertilisers with trace elements, the Greenmaster does the rest. It will rectify poached pastures and scarify old swards, with varying degrees of intensity, and then dimple in the grass seed to the optimum depth [not too deep].”
Mr McDonald will over-seed when there is sufficient soil moisture and warmth, first grazing down the old sward as tightly as possible. He chooses long-term grazing mixtures, predominantly containing Aber perennial rye-grasses and white clover, over-seeded at 10kg/acre. If over-seeding later in the season, he may withhold the white clover and stitch that in with the over-seeding machine the following year.
Taldale has a flock of hill-type North Country Cheviots made up of about 500 ewes and 200 ewe lambs. Half of the ewes are bred to Bluefaced Leicester rams, to produce Cheviot Mules for breeding, with the other half being bred pure, all lambing from the first week in April.
Quality pasture is the key for ewes and lambs through the summer and autumn months. Mr McDonald keeps a close eye on trace element and mineral levels and uses enhanced fertilisers to boost selenium and cobalt in particular, without which lambs will not do as well. He is also providing free access sodium as Himalayan rock salt.
Improving the grassland through over-seeding is so far paying dividends at the back-end of the season, allowing Mr McDonald to delay the introduction of concentrates to weaned lambs by a month.
He says: “We are already seeing the benefits of the pasture renewal, with concentrate feeding not starting until December last year instead of November. This means lambs are growing off-grass costing 7p/kg instead of bought-in feed at 35p/kg.
“At this stage, we see this opportunity to cut bought-in feed costs as the main benefit, rather than increasing stocking rates. While we cannot control the cost of what we buy-in, we can – through pasture improvement – control how much we need.”