SHEEP DO better on shorter grass as they make better use of regrowth and little grass is wasted, believes Ballantrae-based Robert Dalrymple.

“Our ewes and lambs tend to do better when they”re under pressure, so keeping swards short means they graze more efficiently.”

Ewes on Mr Dalrymple”s unit are housed in mid-December and return to grass after lambing in February and March. “Ewes and lambs are set stocked at about four ewes an acre, with early born lambs creep fed until finished. We start selling lambs in about mid-May.”

But while at first appearance the system at Crailoch may look like one with the potential to harm grass, Mr Dalrymple aims to ensure it does exactly the opposite.

“We try to look after our pastures as much as we can. The key principle of everything we do is to avoid damaging swards. Suckler cows are housed in mid-November before they poach ground and fields are watched carefully for any signs of damage by sheep.

“While we don”t have a regular routine of rolling or harrowing. Any field which is poached is rolled well the following spring and any showing signs of compaction is aerated.”

Situated on the far west coast of Scotland, Mr Dalrymple reckons grass grows nearly all year round. “But grass also suffers in this location, as the cold salt winds in winter can burn off regrowth.”

Paramount to keeping grass growth up in the early part of the year at Crailoch is careful use of fertiliser, he says. “We spread fertiliser as early as we can, usually as soon as we hit T-Sum 200.

“The first application is normally about 37.5kg/acre of urea. We find urea best for the first application as it is a slow release fertiliser, so grass uses the nutrients over time.

“After that fertiliser is generally applied once a month until the end of May, then none is applied until about August.” At the end of March grazing land receives an application of 24:12:0 and in late May it is dressed with 25:5:5.

“Our main growing season is April and May, so it”s important to use the right fertiliser at the right time of year,” adds Mr Dalrymple.

Clover also plays an important part in the farm”s pastures, with new silage leys containing about 5% clover. “This is mainly done for the benefit of the sheep, with ewes and lambs grazing silage ground up until April and ewes then flushed on silage aftermaths.”

On many units keeping on top of grass growth also means measuring grass to assess growth, but Mr Dalrymple prefers to measure grass by eye. “Our sheep swards rarely get longer than 0.75in, so measuring it isn”t really necessary. Sheep prefer the shorter sweeter grass resulting from a tight sward,” he explains.

And when grass does occasionally grow ahead of ewes and lambs it is soon under control again thanks to the farm”s suckler cows. “It”s easier and cheaper to move cows into a field to get grass back under control than top pastures.”

Creep feeding also helps make the most of available grass early in the season. It means there is less pressure on grass when the early lambing ewes are turned out of the lambing shed. “It also means plenty of lambs have been sold by the time cows begin to calve in May, so there is enough grass for them to milk well off.”

Creep feeding also helps when lambs are drawn for slaughter because their mothers can be easily identified the following morning when they stand by the gate. “Ewes with lambs still in the field tend to hang back as their lambs are often at the feeders first thing in the morning.”

But breed choice is essential when creep feeding lambs, he reckons. “All our early lambing Texel cross ewes whose lambs are intended for creep feeding are put to Suffolk tups. These lambs respond best to creep feeding.

“Later lambing ewes are put to Texel tups to breed replacements and in recent years we”ve been using Beltex tups as sweepers. But the Beltex lambs are slower growing than the Suffolks or the Texels.”

jonathan.long@rbi.co.uk