Early flock thrives on straw
By Rebecca Austin
TEN years ago David Greasby and his wife, Rosemary, moved out of pig production and into an intensive early-lamb system.
With only 11ha (27 acres) of grassland on the mainly arable 101ha (250-acre) Highlands Farm at Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, Oxon, it was vital any alternative enterprise used land intensively.
On that basis, ADAS devised a blueprint for early-lamb production based on a straw-based ration. This allows the Greasbys to stock 350 Finn Dorset ewes and 20 Suffolk and Finn Dorset rams at a rate of 34/ha (14/acre).
"We sought greater intensity on the grassland area, so it seemed wasteful to be conserving grass when we had surplus straw on the farm," explains Mr Greasby.
Wheat straw is chosen over barley because ewes prefer it. Wheat varieties such as Slepjner, Hunter and Hussar are chosen for leafiness, which gives "chewability" and absorbs moisture well. Stalky straw varieties are avoided because they irritate the eyes.
To secure clean bedding, Mr Greasby allows 2-2.5kg of straw a ewe a day, of which he expects her to eat 1.5kg – and this will be leaf rather than stem.
A key ingredient in a straw-based diet is the concentrate fed. The Greasbys step up the ration concentrates (see table) in preference to a flat-rate system. "We use the phased-up system because that is how we managed the pigs. Adjusting the diet before lambing makes me more aware of what is happening to the ewes and I, therefore, feel I am managing them better," says Mr Greasby. "If anyone does use this system they need accurate scanning assessment at 80 days. It is a high input system looking for a high output – again very similar to the pigs."
Total concentrate feed cost is £19.79 a ewe for the 138.6kg cake each consumes a ewe.
Straw must be bright, fresh, clean and mould free when fed.
Pens are designed so straw can be offered around the perimeter of each pen from an external passageway. This way ewes pick through it and then spread it naturally within the pen. Concentrates are fed twice a day in the same manner. These are rolls fed on the floor, which saves time and hassle. "Last year was the first we used rolls, because we found the lambs were eating the ewe feed off the ground, thereby not eating creep as well as depriving the ewes. The rolls are too big for the lambs," says Mr Greasby. "And they are also reducing stress associated with winter feeding housed sheep." Bigger rolls mean ewes stay stationary to eat them, rather than hoovering up the food and barging each other. Offering them around the edge of the pens means we get similar benefits to trough feeding. Less competition which cuts the risk of abortions. And it is easier to see which ewes hang back or look ill."
Whatever the weather, the Greasbys introduce the straw-based diet well before housing. Even though the farm is only 100m (328ft) above sea level, it is exposed and grass tends to burn up. Feeding usually starts mid-July. Initially a couple of straw bales are dumped in the fields – a system similar to that used on Canadian feedlots. When ewes finish these it is a sign they are ready to start concentrate feeding. In this way ewes are well established on their winter ration by housing, minimising stress at a critical time.
Lambs will start picking at the straw from day one, says Mr Greasby and at weaning they will be offered up to 1.5kg a day. "Hopefully, it fills them up so they dont eat as much concentrate when they tend to lay down fat. We try to adjust the ration to ensure they put on frame to finish properly at a reasonable weight."
Concentrates to supplement straw diet (kg a ewe a day)
• Prefer wheat straw to barley.
• 2-2.5kg of straw a ewe a day.
• Pregnancy scanning at 80 days vital.
• Step up concentrates pre-lambing.
• Rolls fed on floor twice a day.
This Finn Dorset ewe with four-day-old twins is being offered a straw-based diet with 1.5kg a day of an 18% protein concentrate fed as a roll.