29 January 1999

Soaking conditions put pressure on silage crop

Incessant rain has forced

ewes inside six weeks early

and prompted a hunt for

extra silage and straw.

Robert Davies reports

MARGARET Dalton cannot remember the land being so wet. Before stock was housed three weeks ago she had to use her horse for shepherding because some areas were inaccessible, even to the farms quad bike.

"I went round the ewes one morning and saw how miserable they were and decided enough was enough," Margaret recalls. This meant turning sheds, which had never before been used for sheep, into "panic pens".

Although last years silage crop was heavier than average, housing sheep for longer means stocks may not last. Fortunately, a neighbour wanted to clear 150t of silage from a roofed clamp to house sheep. By promising to supply machines and labour to move the material quickly John snapped up the fodder for "a very reasonable price".

"It is good quality first cut that the sheep and cattle are finding very palatable. The 10t of silage we are feeding daily is now coming straight from the other farm. Now we have to shop around for straw."

Rain falling on cattle yards and premature housing of sheep has doubled straw use to four big bales a day in a year when less was ordered because of limited storage space. Extra straw is also needed to bed down the 90 lambs which were housed to finish as quickly as possible on ad lib pellets costing £150/t.

"We have never known a year when lambs have been so difficult to finish. They were not doing well outside and many were lame. We just wanted to see the back of them so we decided to bring them in, sort out their feet and feed concentrate."

Only one of the latest batch of 28 sold failed to meet the specifications of the Waitrose/Farm Assured Welsh Livestock contract. Premiums of 20p/kg and 15p/kg will be paid on U and R grades respectively. With a base price of about £1.50/kg the average return is likely to be £30/lamb, making feeding ad lib concentrate look like an expensive strategy.

Scanning revealed that appalling autumn weather reduced the projected 1999 lambing percentage from 168 to 150. But Margaret suspects many of the 32 barreners detected could be at an early stage of pregnancy after a particularly virile tup managed to get back to the ewes. With prices still very low she is prepared to keep all but eight that need culling.

While the cattle are dirtier than the partners would like, they are thriving on silage and occasional loads of organic vegetable waste. Around a dozen are being finished but are unlikely to return a decent margin. Recently, a prospective buyer looked at some of the 450kg heifers, but would not even consider 85p/kg as a starting point for downward negotiations.

Last seasons grazing and conservation problems persuaded the Daltons to reassess management of the good and bad parts of the farm. Rather than making a big first silage cut, early productive areas will be fertilised as soon as growth starts and conserved three weeks earlier than wetter, colder fields.

An organic 14:6:8 compound, which resists leaching and costs £160/t, is being used to encourage steady grass growth on grazed wetter land. "We have to make sure that there is enough grass to finish lambs as well as for silage, even if we get another wet year," says John.

He and his contracting staff are busy on the sewage sludge contract, and are also re-building second-hand trailers ready to switch from raw to solid, processed material. "By doing the work ourselves we are saving £2500 on each trailer and we know that they are strong enough for the job."

His tender for the new work must be in by Feb 4. If successful, John will have to handle the new material immediately, so he has spent £13,500 on an articulated loading shovel. "It came from Lincs and has worked for eight years in a potato store, but it is in immaculate condition." &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 125ha (310-acre) less favoured area beef and sheep unit in mid-Wales farmed by Margaret Dalton and her son John, who also operates contracting services.

&#8226 Managed in association with an ADAS full-farm advisory package.

&#8226 Quota for 435 ewes. Scotch Mules are put to Rouge tups and the female progeny used to produce Texel-sired prime lambs.

&#8226 Quota for 85 sucklers, Hereford x Friesians, Welsh Blacks and Longhorn x Welsh Blacks, used to breed Charolais cross stores.

&#8226 Small poultry enterprise.

&#8226 One full-time stockman, and variable number of full and part-time contracting staff.