Farmer John Scott with his dog and sheep© Jim Varney

Reducing winter feed bills, labour requirements and a desire to look after grass swards better throughout the winter has led Fearn Farm, Ross-shire, to grow more forage crops.

This year livestock farmer John Scott decided to increase the amount of forage crops he grows from 20ha to more than 100ha, which he hopes will add value to the farm business. 

See also: John Scott wins 2014 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year

Fearn is the base for the family business, which covers several farms in Easter Ross and Sutherland. Total livestock numbers sit at 4,500 ewes and 220 head of native bred cattle, which have traditionally been wintered on silage, feed barley and other by products such as straw and draff.

Feeding ewes a barley-based diet through a snacker on a daily basis was labour intensive, time consuming and was damaging the grass, causing Mr Scott to consider a new approach. 

“If we are going to pay a contractor to grow a crop, I would prefer to utilise it in situ, it makes economic sense, our aim is to reduce the need for mechanical operations.

“We would normally feed out in the stubble fields when dry enough and on grass, but increasing rainfall and resulting compaction is making this more difficult on heavy land. The plan now is to get as much stock behind the wire so we can rest the heavy ground and ease labour,” he says.

Establishment

This year Mr Scott is growing a total of 124ha of forage crops across four areas of the farm.

This will consist of fodder beet, swedes, swedes/turnip mix, stubbles turnips, which will go in behind winter barley, and forage rape/Italian ryegrass to provide an early bite in the spring.

Mr Scott has been able to establish the crops on land he recently took over next door, which is dry and free-draining and has part of an old runway on it, which gives a useful dry lie back area.

Fields were soil sampled to make sure they had a pH of 6.5 or more, which is required for fodder beet before being ploughed, worked, fertilised and precision drilled.

Some good weather along with a two-spray programme has resulted in some decent crops being grown.

Ten different varieties have been trialled, each with a range of dry matters and yields. Stock performance will be monitored before varieties are chosen for 2017.

How the feeding will work 

Various classes of sheep and cattle will strip graze the crops separately this autumn and winter.

Usually bull calves would be left entire and housed for finishing, on a bruised barley/oats and dark grains ration, but this year they have been castrated and are running with the heifer calves on fodder beet outside.

“We will have to supplement with a bit of silage, but the aim is not to be carrying feed bags into the field,” he says.

More than 8,000m of electric and semi-permanent fencing has already been erected on the new farm with temporary reels used in-between. 

How forage crops are adding value

Mr Scott hopes by resting the grazing pastures over the winter it will encourage a good early spring regrowth.

In order to take advantage of the spring regrowth, Mr Scott has pushed back lambing by two weeks, so the stud flock will be lambed in mid-March indoors, followed by the commercials in April.

Establishing the crops has been a big outlay, but Mr Scott hopes the investment will be worth it.

“Keeping animals outside over the winter will hopefully add value to our business,” he says.

“By not spending so much time feeding up and mucking out I’m hoping we will be able to spend more attention on what we are doing, getting stock in right condition and pulling them out at the right time. We are running a labour unit light anyway, so hopefully this will help,” he says.

The dung will also be spread directly on to the ground rather than the workforce having to muck out and spread it, which will also save time.

And by resting the grass over the winter, Mr Scott hopes he will be able to add value to the grass by growing better grass and getting a good strong re-growth, which will aid outdoor lambing.

We will revisit Fearn Farm in 2017 to report on how well the forage crops and livestock performed.

Forage

Properties

Feeding options

Harvest and conservation options

Forage rape

Forage rape is a fast-growing leafy catch crop with a high protein content. It tends to last longer than stubble turnips. Winter-hardy hybrids are available.

It has a flexible sowing period and is good for fattening lambs. It can also be used to feed dairy and beef cattle.

Always introduce stock slowly to this crop over a week to 10 days and with a full stomach. Provide a grass run-back area and hay, silage or straw (fibre) in the field as it is being grazed. Minerals and water should also be available. Limit crop to 50-80% of total DM intake.

Good mineral supplementation is essential, especially for dry cows as the crop is high in calcium and low in magnesium and phosphorus. Attention should also be given to iodine and selenium levels.

The crop is best strip grazed to avoid excessive wastage with cattle, but sheep can be blocked grazed.

Provides summer or autumn feed.

 

Turnips

Turnips are fast growing and make good autumn or winter feed. Good for finishing lambs or feeding cattle when grass growth slows. Economical to grow, turnips can help reduce winter feed costs.

Always introduce stock slowly to this crop over a week to ten days. Provide a grass run-back area and hay, silage or straw (long fibre) in the field as it is being grazed.

Minerals and water should also be available. Limit crop to 50-80% of total DM intake.

The crop is best strip grazed to avoid excessive wastage and ensure leaf and bulbs are consumed.

Provides late summer, autumn and early winter feed.

Swedes

Swedes are an excellent high-energy winter feed, which are cost effective to grow. Good crop for finishing lambs or for winter maintenance.

Swedes can be hard to eat for stock that are changing or losing their teeth. Only recommended for wintering lambs or cattle with fully mature teeth. Not suitable for broken-mouthed sheep. If roots are lifted they must be free of soil and not damaged.

Strip grazing will minimise wastage.

Can be lifted and clamped and then fed chopped.

Provides winter feed.

Fodder beet

Fodder beet provides a nutritious crop that can provide useful winter forage. It can also be an ideal replacement for cereals.

A high energy, palatable crop. May need washing prior to feeding or clamping. Frosted beet that is very black and rotten should not be fed. Potentially a very high-yielding crop in terms of megajoules of metabolisable energy/ha.

Can be grazed in situ or lifted and fed after cleaning.

Can be fed whole or chopped. Use will be lower if grazed.

Harvesting late in the season can be difficult on heavy land.

Provides winter feed.

Details supplied by AHDB Home Grown forages directory.