Rapid de-stocking of both cull ewes and store lambs is underway at Chawton Park Farm, near Alton, Hampshire, as Ian Robertson looks to conserve grazing in preparation for managing the flock of 1,400 Lleyn breeding ewes through autumn and winter.
He says: “Current overall grass growth rates are around 20-25kg/ha/day which is ahead of our budget of 10kg/ha/day for this time of year. This is helping make up for the lack of growth during June and July. In the last week of August our covers were about 1,700kg DM/ha, again ahead of budget.”
But the grazing – which covers an area of chalk downland – remains under pressure. Lambs are presently consuming more than 2,000kg DM/day and the business needs to rapidly de-stock in order to maintain cover. He says: “Over the next three weeks, 1,200 lambs will be sold as stores through Ashford market regardless of current pressure on sheep prices.”
The aim is to prioritise grazing to ensure ewes regain body condition before going back to the tups. Ewes will be condition scored once lambs have been weaned and those below score 3 will be given priority.
“On the home farm using rotational grazing we do a leader follower system, with daily moves. The leader group will be the ewes below score 3 and they will have an area large enough to allow them to graze down to 1,500kg DM/ha. The following group will be the fit ewes who will have an allocation of around 1.5 per cent of body weight (0.9kg DM) which should be enough to maintain their condition through to tupping.
“The amount of cover we need going into autumn is determined by the ewes’ condition at weaning. With limited nutrient inputs allowed under our HLS agreement we are reliant on de-stocking lambs and cull ewes in order to maintain covers going into the winter. Next year, we will have more flexibility to encourage grass growth using fertiliser if needed.”
In order to keep the ewes out through winter the aim is to have covers of about 1,500kg DM/ha at the end of December. Preparation now in late summer will play a determining hand in achieving this goal.
Mr Robertson's farm is one of six commercial farms taking part in the RamCompare project looking at including lamb performance data both on farm and from abattoir reports to improve genetic evaluation of terminal sires, and he has received the four tups needed for this winter.
These include one each of Charollais, Texel, Suffolk and Hampshire breeds sourced from recorded flocks. He says: “We have also bought a high index Charollais and two very high index Lleyn rams to use on the rest of the flock.”
Although it can be difficult to accept we are fast heading towards autumn, Mr Robertson’s approach to dealing with the change in seasons should be praised, according to AHDB Beef and Lamb’s Liz Genever.
She says: “At this point in the year it is important to focus on the amount of grass cover which is on-farm.
“Apart from a possible autumn flush, grass levels will start declining from now on, unless stock is sold or moved away. It is a simple case of supply and demand, with grass growth declining while demand is maintained, or increased if tupping ewes.”
For forage-based sheep systems, there can be a conflict between finishing lambs and preparing ewes for tupping. Mr Robertson is dealing with this by selling stores and cull ewes; other options including moving stock onto forage crops.
Ms Genever says: “Some producers are establishing their own targets for the percentage of lambs which need to be sold by tupping.
“They have identified that after mid-summer the emphasis needs to be moved towards ensuring ewes are in the correct body condition score.”
Mr Robertson has established cover targets, which are based on knowledge of his stock’s requirements and his previous experience. All farms could establish their own targets, according to Ms Genever. “These could range from 1,500-2,000kg DM per ha, as it will depend on stocking rate, supplements provided and housing dates,” she says.
“It is important to assess the amount of grass that is present at the moment, as there is still time to influence farm cover and make changes to how stock are grazed in the autumn and winter. Nitrogen application on appropriate fields, could improve farm cover and boost supply, while selling or grazing stock off the farm would reduce demand.”