Grass growth has trimmed Sligo farmers concentrate feed bills by €7/ewe

The stormy weather in mid-April took a toll, but overall it's been a good lambing season on Philip Higgins' farm where strong grass growth has seen a €7 per ewe saving on feed costs, writes Tom Coll

Philip Higgins on his farm in Skreen, Co Sligo. Photo: Brian Farrell
Philip Higgins on his farm in Skreen, Co Sligo. Photo: Brian Farrell
Grass growth on the Higgins farm for the last week of April was 84kg DM/h a. Photo: Brian Farrell

Tom Coll

'A little bit of everything and not a lot of anything" replies Philip Higgins when asked how the lambing went this year.

Lamb losses from scanning are less than 10pc and were a result of the usual issues - a few difficult lambings, lambs being laid on in individual pens, the odd ruptured prolapse, a couple of cases of watery mouth, joint ill and of few sudden deaths.

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The harsh stormy wet weather that occurred in mid-April accounted for the loss of 10 lambs from ewe lambs due to weather exposure and smothering as they huddled together beside a stone wall in an exposed paddock.

Farm Facts

Philip Higgins is the latest farmer to join the Sheep Tech joint venture run by Teagasc in conjunction with Irish Country Meats.

Grass growth on the Higgins farm for the last week of April was 84kg DM/h a. Photo: Brian Farrell
Grass growth on the Higgins farm for the last week of April was 84kg DM/h a. Photo: Brian Farrell

Philip farms a mixed suckler and sheep farm just outside the village of Skreen in Co Sligo where he lives with his wife Amanda, son Jonathan and daughters Naomi and Hannah.

His flock consists of 350 mature ewes and 110 ewe lambs that lambed down in 2019. His main target this year is to finish as many lambs as possible off grass alone and achieve a gross margin of €80 per ewe.

He plans to increase ewe number to 500 in the next few years.

This year mature ewes scanned at 1.81 lambs per ewe mated with ewe lambs having a litter size of 1.42. Lambing commenced on March 1 for the mature ewe flock and three weeks later for the ewe lambs.

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The earliest born lambs were dosed on April 13 for nematodirus with a white worm drench following the nematodirus forecast which was issued on the Department of Agriculture website.

They advised that lambs in south west coastal areas and the west of Ireland should be dosed with a suitable anthelmintic from mid to late April while those in the rest of the country should be dosed from late April to early May.

Philip Higgins
Philip Higgins

Philip's flock graze the same fields each year which increases the risk of infection.

He will dose the later born lambs in early May when they are old enough and consuming grass.

Enterprises with high stocking rates are particularly vulnerable.

Twin lambs, or single lambs born to ewes of poor milking ability may be at a greater risk of developing disease as they begin consuming greater amounts of grass earlier in life.

Philip Higgins
Philip Higgins

Philip plans to use faecal egg counts from June onwards to determine the requirement for future dosing.

In the case of nematodirus it is the larvae that cause the damage to the intestine and so the nematodirus forecast is the best method of predicting when to dose.

Farmers need to be aware that the symptoms of a nematodirus outbreak are similar to an outbreak of coccidiosis - black scour, lambs becoming dehydrated and collecting around drinkers followed by death.

The two diseases often occur concurrently.

Philip has no history of coccidiosis on the farm to date. All lambs will be dosed with cobalt every 14 days from eight weeks of age. They will also be foot-bathed to prevent scald each time they are gathered.

Grassland management

This year Philip is using the pasture base programme to measure grass growth and as a decision support tool for the removal of grass surpluses.

This will enable his flock to graze paddocks at the ideal heights that will maximise lamb growth rates from grazed grass.

He will then use the programme at the end of the growing season to review how each paddock has performed based on the overall annual grass dry matter production.

The results can then be matched with soil analysis results and decisions made on fertiliser and lime requirements and the need for reseeding.

Philip's plan was to graze paddocks to a post grazing height of 3.5-4cm with sheep going into paddocks at heights of 7-8cm.

The mild winter and spring this year brought with it challenges that Philip had not experienced in previous years.

High grass covers, built up over the winter has made grassland management especially graze outs more difficult.

Ewes were turned out to grass when lambs were two to three days old depending on weather conditions.

They were grazed in batches of 50 for three to four weeks after turnout and then put in a 300-ewe grazing group.

Ewe lambs rearing twins and those rearing singles make up the three sheep grazing groups on the farm.

Philip will creep feed the lambs from the ewe lambs rearing doubles and plans to finish as high a percentage as possible of all other lambs off grass with no concentrate input.

He initially grazed all the silage ground and is currently moving the large group of ewes and lambs through high covers of grass of 10-12cm.

He is reducing the time spent by the ewes and lambs in these paddocks and allowing a group of sucker cows at the point of calving to graze out the paddocks to 4 cm.

A number of paddocks have been identified to be removed as baled silage in early May as soon as weather conditions allow.

Philip admits that managing high grass covers was challenging this spring, but it is a problem that he would gladly face every spring.

A substantial bank of pit of silage remains in the yard from last year.

This year he plans to take a first cut of silage in the form of round bales of high quality grass with a planned cutting date around May 20.

This should help to reduce the concentrate bills for the cattle and sheep enterprises on the farm next winter.

And while ewe numbers have increased this year they have consumed 10 tonnes less concentrates than over the same period last year.

Ewes were in better condition at housing and no concentrates have been fed to ewes at grass this year.

"This has been great on labour saving, there is one less job to do and resulted in a saving of almost €7 per ewe in concentrate costs to date," says Philip.

The main grazing block which Philip is measuring consists of 56.6 ha divided into 24 paddocks; 19.3 ha has now been closed for silage with a further 8ha due to be baled as surplus grass in the next few days.

Grass growth on the Higgins farm for the last week of April was 84 kg DM/Ha which is similar to the growth rate of 86 Kg DM/Ha achieved on the Teagasc Sheep Better farm of John O'Connell in Leitrim for the same period.

Tom Coll is a Teagasc advisor based in Mohill, Co Leitrim

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