19 July 2002

Why stubble turnips help trim winter grazing costs

By Jonathan Long

GRAZING sheep on stubble turnips can cost as little as 8p/ewe/day including all costs, making it one of the cheapest winter fodders available, according to one Wilts flockmaster.

"We lamb 300 Poll Dorset ewes in late November and simply dont have the buildings to keep that many sheep in all winter, they have to go out and graze something," says Nick Coombes, who farms in partnership with his father at Burcombe, Wilton.

Cropping on Mr Coombes 525ha (1300 acre) Burcombe Manor Farm includes 160ha (400 acres) of grassland. However, this is a mix of traditional water meadows and open downland and is not suited to winter grazing.

The remainder of the farm is in arable cropping with oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter and spring barley and peas in the rotation.

"Our downland doesnt grow enough grass in the winter months and the meadows are under water. The only choice we have is to grow a catch crop and stubble turnips suit our system," says Mr Coombes.

Stubble turnips generally follow spring barley, with a min-till approach taken, helping to keep costs to a minimum. "White Star turnips are drilled with a 3m Vaderstad drill, are rolled in, receive one fertiliser application once they have germinated and then nothing else is done to them," says Mr Coombes.

He believes that a spray application would be an unnecessary luxury, which the crop doesnt justify.

The farm does not employ a fixed seed rate, tending to vary it depending on the weather. In drier conditions, the rate may be as high 4kg/ha (1.6kg/acre), but in wetter weather it may drop to nearer 2.5kg/ha (1kg/acre) as germination rates vary greatly with conditions, says Mr Coombes.

His flock, which grazes the crop, consists of ewes put to either Dorset or Texel rams. Ewes and lambs stay in after lambing for no longer than is necessary, generally three to four days.

Once on the turnips, ewes are offered a moderate amount of concentrate feed, together with hay when the weather is unfavourable.

However, unlike many early lambing systems, lambs are offered no creep feed, relying solely on the milking ability of ewes and the turnip crop for all their needs.

Ewes are folded twice a week using electric netting, a task which takes Mr Coombes and his father about three hours a week. They have tried multi-strand fencing systems, but have had trouble with lambs going between the wires, leading to ewes breaking through the wire to reach their lambs. This wastes turnips and leads to a never ending task of repairing fences.

The sheep have to be off the turnips by the first week in March so the pea or barley crop can be sown as soon as the weather is suitable.

"The turnips provide a useful break crop for both the sheep and arable enterprise," says Mr Coombes.

"We grow spring peas and spring barley, leaving us with an area of uncropped land every winter, to not make use of it is leaving our primary asset earning nothing."

By grazing sheep on the arable ground, we are also able to add to the soils nitrogen content and improve its organic content, while also earning from the land.

"Folding of sheep on arable ground over the winter was a traditional practice in this part of the country, with sheep grazing the downs during the summer and the arable lands during the winter. Weve taken this principle and extended it to a modern day situation, with a lower labour requirement."

Lambs from the flock are sold liveweight through Frome market, with the first lambs marketed from the end of March onwards and all but a handful of the crop sold by the end of June.

Mr Coombes has considered selling deadweight, but at present feels he has greater control over flock returns by using the auction system. &#42

Stubble turnips (above) are the most cost-effective grazed winter forage for November-lambing ewes, says Nick Coombes.

&#8226 Min-till establishment.

&#8226 Twice weekly folding.

&#8226 Improve soil fertility.