Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

Close fields now to meet grass needs next spring

Grazing down pastures tight (3cm) before closing will allow more light to enter the base of the sward
Grazing down pastures tight (3cm) before closing will allow more light to enter the base of the sward

Andrew Kinsella

Mr Hook and company reiterated many times after the recent Ireland-South Africa match that rugby is a simple game if the basics are done well and you lose when the basics are not done well.

I would suggest that sheep farming is no different and success is dependent on implementing some basic practices at critical times. At this time of year, sheep farmers should be concentrating on the most basic of practices, ie providing sufficient grass for the ewes next spring.

The area required will depend on stocking rate and lambing date. A March-lambing flock will require one hectare of well-managed, early grass for every 12-13 ewes. If lambing in mid-February, this stock-carrying capacity will be reduced to 8-10 ewes/ha. Thus a 100-ewe flock lambing in March will require 8ha for early grass, while a similar flock lambing in February will require up to 12ha. Fields or paddocks making up this required area should be closed rotationally between now and the middle of next month (even earlier if you are lambing in February).

Ewes can continue to be outwintered on any remaining ground,provided there is sufficient pasture cover. Fields that are required first next spring -- perhaps those around the shed or the most sheltered -- should be closed first.

Grazing down pastures good and tight (3cm) before closing will allow more light to enter the base of the sward. This promotes winter tillering and denser, higher-yielding swards next spring. Close grazing and good pasture usage is readily achieved during dry weather, but it can be a real problem during periods of wet weather when the grass lies and the sward becomes soiled. In such circumstances, it may be as well to take the ewes off for a day or two and return them when the pasture has cleaned up.

Research at Athenry has shown that each one-day delay in closing date from the middle of next month will reduce herbage dry matter yield by 54kg in the spring. In practical terms, this means that for every four-day delay in closing from then, ewes will have to be fed meals for one week after lambing. Having to feed meals for this limited period, even 1kg/ewe/day -- which may not fully satisfy the ewe's requirements if grass is scarce -- will increase costs by €2/ewe.

There is also the increase in workload. The whole idea of having to feed meals to 150-200 ewes with lambs at foot on wet, cold days during March and possibly April should be sufficient enough to convince farmers that there is a better way.

Grazing management at this time of year also influences ewe condition at lambing time. Many farmers house ewes on a set date (eg mid-December or after Christmas) rather than by the amount of pasture that is available for grazing. If there is insufficient pasture, ewes will lose body condition. Furthermore, it is practically impossible for ewes housed in mid-pregnancy to regain body condition between housing and lambing.

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In reality, ewes, particularly those carrying multiples, will lose condition during this period. For ewes to remain in good body condition at lambing (condition score 3), they need to be housed while they are still in good condition. At least two-thirds of the ewes in the flock should be at condition score 3.5 or better at housing. Ewe body condition has been relatively good this year, but it is my experience that too many ewes lose too much condition during years with a mild, wet back-end. This can increase the workload enormously at lambing time.

In my own particular situation, pastures are closed from early November and ewes are generally housed from the first few days in December. While lambing does not start until mid-March, there is often still a struggle to have sufficient grass at turn-out.

Remember, the autumn-closing management has the largest effect on the supply of early spring grass.

Also remember that spring grass is far better than silage or hay and is at least as good, if not better, than concentrates. It is cheaper than meals and way easier to feed.

Andrew Kinsella is a sheep farmer from Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. He is a former sheep specialist with Teagasc

Irish Independent