31 August 2001

FEED PLAN VITAL FOR TOUGH HILL WINTER

Upland flockmasters could

be facing one of the most

difficult winter feeding

periods ever. Robert Davies

looks at potential problems

and possible answers

A LATE spring meant last years conserved fodder stocks were exhausted by turnout. Higher stocking rates linked to foot-and-mouth restrictions and poor growing conditions have reduced the amount of silage made this year, so everything indicates that on-farm silage and hay supplies will be low this winter.

The impact of this will be exacerbated on some farms because lowland away wintering will not be available at almost any price.

"A number of dairy producer clients have already decided not to take sheep next winter, and I guess many others will reach the same conclusion," says David Peers, a senior ADAS consultant.

"I would advise all sheep farmers who normally rely on tack to get on the telephone to host producers as soon as possible."

Dr Peers suspects it will be difficult to find alternative wintering where the usual location is unavailable. He admits it will not be easy to winter sheep at home but, where it is clear no tack is available, other arrangements must be made.

"Home produced fodder will not be abundant and cheap alternative feeds will be hard to secure. Milk producers have looked at the quota situation and decided to push for increased yields, which will raise demand for feed grains in a year when there is a smaller area of autumn sown cereals to harvest."

He advises sheep producers to make early applications for sugar beet allocations, and to try to fertilise to boost autumn grass growth and possibly build a wedge of grass to keep ewes and lambs next spring.

Sugar beet

"Ewes can afford to lose a little body weight in mid-pregnancy, and where grazing is reasonable, feeding sugar beet in the field can provide the energy they need pre-lambing to avoid twin lamb disease. Extra protein is only needed immediately before lambing.

"Breeders need to think forward about fertiliser for grass and seek nutritional advice on what feeds are available and the best way of using them."

But Dr Peers acknowledges that going heavily stocked into winter will create big problems, not least by limiting how much a farms more productive pastures can be rested to provide spring bite.

"If the availability of tack is limited, upland producers face a tough winter, even supposing weather conditions are reasonable."

However, catch crops may offer a solution for some. Francis Dunne of Oliver Seeds says August sown ryegrass can produce an excellent late silage cut and recover over winter for grazing by ewes and lambs.

"One of our customers in the West Country sowed our Tornado mixture of three ryegrasses on Aug 27 last year, started grazing one month later and got 6000 lamb grazing days/ha (2500 days/acre) up to Jan 15."

After a rest, ryegrass was used for ewes and lambs. Fodder rye sown up to late September could also provide much needed early spring grazing for ewes and lambs.

Stocking rates

When feed supplies are very tight Gwyn Howells, MLCs Wales manager, expects breeders to take a long hard autumn look at flock composition and stocking rates. He says that each farm situation is different and there are no fit-all remedies.

"Some hill farms will approach winter with extra breeding sheep that would normally be cleaning up pastures on dairy farms, as well as lambs and crossbred draft and cull ewes that cannot be sold. Unless circumstances change quickly, some sheep will have to be culled and frozen or burned."

Where this happens, or when breeders have chance to market stock, the aim should be to go into winter with stock numbers that can be carried without welfare problems and without buying in huge quantities of feed. When breeding sheep numbers have to be cut significantly the policy should be to retain the best.

Upland farmers who claim agri-environment and extensification payments face some of the biggest problems. Management prescriptions often require a wintertime reduction in ewe numbers on semi-natural rough grazings.

Extra cost

Wintering more ewes at home on limited in-bye land means extra cost will be incurred. A three year study by ADAS at the companys Pwllpeiran and Redesdale research units concluded that the cheapest way to winter ewes was a combination of grazing and housing immediately before and after lambing. At current costs, the bill would be about £8.50/ewe, including £8.13/head for feed.

Housing ewes all winter pushes up the feed bill to £17.49/ewe. This, and using four times as much straw would mean a £19.13/ewe charge, and there are implications for flock health and labour costs when sheep are housed throughout the winter.

Supply and demand means sending ewes away to quality tack for 18 weeks will cost much more than before F&M, perhaps as much as £1/week. There will also be extra vet inspection and disinfection costs.

The total bill, including feed and transport, could easily be as high as £28/ewe. &#42

OVERWINTERING OPTIONS

&#8226 Tack availability limited.

&#8226 Catch crop options.

&#8226 May need to house ewes.