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Profit from grass: Plan ahead to make the most of winter grazing

Planning for winter is underway at Croglin High Hall, near Armathwaite in Cumbria.

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WITH second cut silage taken off 16ha (40ac) at the end of August, Thomas Stobart has top dressed all lowland paddocks with 120kg N/ha (96 units/ac) to encourage grass growth into winter.

 

He says: “We would normally be shutting up grazing from early August to carry ewes into winter usually ending up with long grass of poor quality. But the past few years we have continued grazing having found a late dressing encourages growth of younger, better quality grass.”

 

This would have been used predominately for the breeding ewes and possibly a few finishing lambs. But the business focus has changed. Rather than finishing lambs, more are being sold as stores easing pressure on grazing and avoiding costs over winter, says Thomas, who farms in partnership with brother Jimmy, and parents, George and Fiona.

 

“About 60 per cent of the lamb crop has been sold to date either through Lazonby mart or direct off-farm. We would normally only have sold 30 per cent. Our focus is on production/ha rather than how many lambs we can finish.

 

“There is a lot of time spent going around groups of lambs sent down on to dairy farms to finish. And we have to value our time. It has taken some time to get our heads around selling a store at £60/head when we are used to achieving closer to £80 as a finished lamb. But having a cheaper winter is our aim.”

 

To ensure lamb performance is upheld, faecal egg counts have been used to determine when drenches needed to be administered. A second clear drench was used at the end of August whilst some poorer lambs have been grazing chichory which is also claimed to impact positively on worm burdens.

 

Ewes have been kept quite tight over summer but look fit in preparation for tupping which is scheduled to start on November 10, says Thomas. The farm’s pack of tups - Llyn and Texel for the lowland flock, Primera for the hoggs, and Swaledale for the fell flock - have been joined by four Innovis tups.

 

Replacements also look to be in good health with 170 draft breeding ewes being sold off-farm to a local sheep farm. “We are replacing some of these mouths with extra cattle as we see it as providing a better balance for the grazing system overall,” says Thomas.

 

Two mobs of cattle are running across Croglin High Hall helping manage the quality of grazing by utilising long or older pasture. “Our typical cover at the moment is 2500kg DM/ha and we have a good wedge to carry ewes into winter,” he saysb.

 

These aspects were discussed at a meeting on-farm organised by research institute Mordun and the brothers recognise it may take several years before the full impact of changes are seen but the fundamental aim is to reduce feed costs across the farm.”

 

Managing grass during the winter

For all grass-based systems, the winter is the pinch point according to Dr Liz Genever, AHDB Senior Scientist.


She says: “At this time of year, pasture cover falls as demand outstrips supply until the spring. The Stobarts are selling lambs to try and reduce the demand on the pasture and using nitrogen to boost supply, with the plan of allocating more grass to ewes. From late summer, thoughts should turn to investing in next year’s lamb crop and the priority needs to be getting ewes in the correct body condition score for tupping.”

 

There are a couple of challenges with applying nitrogen later in the season. “Firstly, if the land is in a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ), the closed period for manufactured fertiliser on grassland is September 15,” says Dr Genever. Liz. “Also, as grass growth declines, the response rate will decline. When grass is growing quickly (50-70 kg dry matter (DM) per hectare per day), 1kg of nitrogen (N) will produce around 15kg DM on well-managed swards. As the grass growth slows (10kg DM/ha per day), the response rate may drop to 5kg DM for every 1kg of N applied. This will also affect the N cost per kg DM produced. The time taken for grass to respond will increase from around three to four weeks when growing rapidly to 10-14 weeks when growth has slowed down.”

 

The Stobarts have applied 120kg N per ha, which could lead to an extra 600kg DM per ha (based on a response rate of 5:1) over the next couple of months. Dr Genever says: “This equates to around 375 grazing days per hectare for a 65kg ewe being allocated three per cent of her bodyweight (before and during tupping), compared to around 430 grazing days per hectare for a 35kg lamb allocated four per cent of its bodyweight.


“As the Stobarts have recognised, it is likely that the grass allocated to the ewes will have a greater return in terms of more lambs next year compared to putting weight on lambs this year.”

 

A BRP+ document on All Grass Wintering is available at beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk/returns and provides information on how to establish a winter feed budget.

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