Farm Ireland

Thursday 13 December 2018

How this mixed farm with 350 ewes and 120 bullocks is managing spring grass


Teagasc advisor Terry Carroll and farm owner Rory O'Donnell on the first of the Grass10 sheep spring grazing walks at Clashwilliam, Gowran, Co Kilkenny
Teagasc advisor Terry Carroll and farm owner Rory O'Donnell on the first of the Grass10 sheep spring grazing walks at Clashwilliam, Gowran, Co Kilkenny
Teagasc advisor Terry Carroll and farm owner Rory O'Donnell at the Grass10 walk in Kilkenny
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

On a bitterly cold February afternoon, that 'perfect day' looked a distant thought as a crowd of students from Kildalton joined the local sheep farmers in the walk across Rory O'Donnell's 66ha grassland farm at Clashwilliam, outside Gowran, Co Kilkenny.

The land is split into 48ha surrounding the yard, with a further 18ha across a roadway from the rest of the farmland.

The 350 Texel x Belclare ewes were bunched in groups of 70 in the shed after being housed only on January 10, with lambing due to start on March 25. They've been on silage, with meal introduced just last week.

The mixed enterprise also carries 120 bullocks aged from 16 to 30 months that are bought in every autumn and finished solely off grass.

It was the soil indexes that caught the attention of many as they were ranked a smart index 3 for P, with all the ground reseeded in the last eight years.

With the aim of utilising 10t grass DM/ha with 10 grazings, Teagasc advisor at the farm, Terry Carroll, said they were setting out under the Grass10 to improve grassland management across the country.

For those starting out with low P and K, Terry pointed out a combination of slurry and compound fertiliser would be best. On the O'Donnell farm, around 160,000 gallons of slurry is spread on the farmland.

The autumn closing dates were something that a farmer could control and were vital, he said. "What happens over the winter then, best made plans and all that, we are at the mercy of bigger powers, but what we have done will affect the growth rate to some extent.

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"It is no good thinking about spring grass when you hit February. There is no point in waiting, we are not magicians, you have to have some sort of a plan in place. If we don't put any plan in place, we can't expect miracles."

Philip pointed out that the grassland plan from Athenry was based on an early-lambing flock with the aim of having 20pc closed by late October, 40pc by mid November, 60pc by late November and 80pc by mid-December.

"I'm not saying it will work exactly on everyone's farm - people will have different lambing dates and different land. It is a starting point," he explained. "If you don't have a plan, it is hard to achieve the result we are looking for."

He pointed out that Rory was working with a mixed sheep and beef farm, with 25pc closed by late October, 50pc by mid-November, 60pc by late November and 80pc by mid-December.

"We are trying to lamb the ewes to coincide with grass growth starting to equal supply," said Philip.

"Once we lamb, there is no turning back. By starting in October, we are capitalising on the regrowths in October and early November," he said.

"If we don't start closing until well into November, we have lost the opportunity to build the regrowths."

Rory closed off the land furthest from the yard first as it is the most sheltered for the early turnout, with the sheep confined to a small area with silage until they were housed.

At this point of year, the aim is to have a farm with 650kg/DM/ha or 5cm-6cm of average cover. On the Gowran farm, the average was around 300kg/DM/ha or 4cm-4.5cm.

"If you were to think about what you did last autumn, assess what is on the farm at the moment and look at if there is something you could change. It is too late for this year, but never to late for next year," said Philip. Terry pointed out they were aiming for four months or 120 days of a rest period for the grass.

Teagasc's Michael Gottstein, head of sheep knowledge transfer, said it was now about trying to drive on the grass on the farm between now and turnout.

With spreading in mind, firstly conditions to travel the ground were key, followed by soil temperatures beginning to rise and ensuring there was no drop in temperatures forecast for the week ahead.

"When you do spread fertiliser, it is not a magic wand," said Michael. "It takes a period of time for the fertiliser to work. Generally it takes about four to six weeks from the time you spread until you have grass on the ground."

Michael said the second application before the start of lambing or at lambing time if possible was key to ensure more grass was coming on.

"Now is the time for most to start thinking about spreading fertiliser or slurry, not in four to six weeks' time."

Terry also pointed out the "second shot" of fertiliser around five weeks later is the real winner. "The first one gets it into the growth phase and the second one delivers the volume," he said, with the amount spread for the rest of the year dependent on stocking rates.

"People can start running out of grass in the three to five-week period after they turn out the sheep," said Michael. "From the ewes point of view, that is what we really want to avoid as that is the stage the ewe flock is hitting the peak milk yield. If you restrict their intake at that particular period of time, you will lower the amount of milk they will produce in their entire lactation."

He also urged farmers to group up the ewes into larger flocks after as short a period of time as possible, with groups of around 80 to 100 on Rory's farm after the major concerns of mis-mothering have passed.

Paddocks may need to be split with the aim of having five paddocks per grazing group.

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