28 March 1997

Planning for lot less rain

Preparation now should help one Hertfordshire family cope with a drought this summer. Emma Penny reports

TWO years of drought have led to silage yields which are half their previous level, and lack of grass in summer at Kettlewells Farm, St Albans.

That has means Dan and Susan Simms, who run 84 spring calving sucklers and their followers, have had to ration winter feed carefully, buffer feed during summer – including the use of creep feed – wean calves early and sell cattle as stores rather than finishing them.

Figures from the local college show that rainfall in the year Mar 96 to February this year amounted to 452mm (18in) – almost a third less than the average since records began of 642mm (25in). And in the previous year – Mar 95-Feb 96 – rainfall was 487mm (19in) – 75% of the average.

"We rely on renting summer grazing. All the land here, bar 20 acres, is cropped, and its impossible to get any more land for grazing because of IACS," explains Mrs Simms.

"Drought concerns started in 1995 during the hot, dry summer, and were compounded by a similar summer last year coupled with less rain over winter," she says.

The rented keep, which the family have taken on a grass let for the last 13 years, is old pasture, which quickly runs out of steam and doesnt re-grow. This year, Mrs Simms hopes to be able to slot seed to rejuvenate the sward.

"Newer varieties should be more vigorous. Although the grass is only on an annual let, I reckon it will be worth spending the money if we can graze for longer without buffer and creep feeding."

In the last two seasons, grass has been supplemented by straw and feed blocks from July. Calves are offered 1-1.5kg/head/day of home-mixed creep containing ground barley, sugar beet pulp, soya and minerals, working up to 2kg/head/day as the season progresses.

Signet consultant Geoff Fish says that the creep will act as a buffer, reducing stress on cows. "Creep will supplement milk, and take some pressure off the cows. If grass is particularly short, the calves will be weaned in September."

Last autumns flush of grass meant that Mrs Simms was able to leave cows out after weaning, allowing them to put on condition. "The cows came in November, and they were in good condition."

Good body condition scores meant that the herd was fed on straw, stockfeed potatoes and a balancer until January, when silage was introduced on alternate days. "Silage supplies were very tight and had to be eked out; we had only 300 bales compared with the 500-600 that we usually require."

That left enough silage to be fed post-calving to ensure adequate milk yield, says Mrs Simms. "It looks as if grass is going to be in short supply again this year, so we have decided to sell last years calves as stores rather than finish them; that should take some pressure off the grass."

Managing the drought: Signet consultant Geoff Fish advises Sue Simms to creep feed calves to take pressure off cows and sell cattle earlier as stores.


&#8226 Slot seeding to rejuventate swards.

&#8226 Sell cattle earlier as stores.

&#8226 Creep and buffer feeding.