New grass varieties offer solutions for drought-stricken sheep producers

New grass varieties could offer a solution for drought-stricken sheep producers. Jeremy Hunt finds out more.

Sheep producers at risk of losing performance from drought-stricken grass should be looking at the new varieties of cocksfoot and meadow fescue if they want to maintain grass growth in adverse conditions, say seed specialists.

Red clover and lucerne should also be considered when planning pasture improvements to achieve drought tolerance, as well as forage crops such as brassicas, stubble turnips and chicory.

Rod Bonshor, of Oliver Seeds, says there is a surge of interest among sheep producers keen to capitalise on the ability of modern grasses to provide sustained performance and yield in dry conditions.

“There are now improved varieties of the deep-rooting cocksfoot and meadow fescue grasses that had fallen from favour. The new varieties are not only tolerant to dry conditions but cope equally well in wet seasons because of their deep rooting characteristics,” says Mr Bonshor.

“Cocksfoot used to have a reputation for its sharp leaf and unpalatability. Now breeders have removed the silica that was responsible for that sharpness on the leaf’s blade, and modern cocksfoot varieties are silky-smooth and highly palatable.”

Modern meadow fescue and timothy grasses are also essential inclusions in a grass mixture where drought tolerance is an important consideration. They should be included at a 30% rate – say, 30% cocksfoot, 30% meadow fescue – and balanced with a tetraploid ryegrass.

“This type of mixture will provide a pasture with a greater tolerance of drought conditions; it will produce a medium-term ley that will establish well, given reasonable conditions for germination,” says Mr Bonshor.

As well as red clover, sheep producers should consider lucerne, which no longer deserves its reputation for poor resilience to hard grazing. Plant breeders have produced new varieties with deeply placed root crowns that are able to withstand grazing pressure and perform well in dry conditions.

As weather patterns present grassland farmers with ever-increasing challenges of unseasonal growing conditions, the value of pastures that will withstand such extremes is becoming a management focus for sheep producers and a way of avoiding reliance on supplementary feeding.

Mr Bonshor adds: “More sheep producers are acknowledging that grass varieties are now available to better withstand sustained grazing pressure in drought conditions, and supplementary feeding does not have to be the safety net; the pasture can do it, providing it’s given the chance.”

Farmer case study 1: Fridlington Farms

Stuart Stark, of Fridlington Farms, near York, has been working with EBLEX, Oliver Seeds and Cotswold Seeds to evaluate drought-tolerant grass mixtures to provide grazing for the farm’s 2,000 New Zealand Highlander ewes.

“We switched to outdoor lambing and depend on a good spring bite; but we are on blowing sand in the Vale of York, with around 30in of rainfall and pasture that can easily burn up in midsummer,” says Mr Stark.

To try to produce a pasture that would provide a good spring cover – even on this lighter land – and withstand dry conditions in midsummer, a grass mix with a high level of cocksfoot was sown. The first pastures were grazed five years ago.

Since then, they have performed extremely well and carried ewes and lambs throughout the summer, despite dry conditions. The first fields to be sown have just been replaced.

“We get a very good early bite; it can drop off in early June but comes back well at the end of the summer and takes ewes through to November, when they are moved on to roots,” says Mr Stark. “The cocksfoot used to have a reputation for being clumpy but that’s not a problem if it’s managed correctly and the sheep can keep on top of it and graze it tightly. It’s a deep-rooting grass and comprises 50% of the mix, which also includes chicory, meadow fescue, red clover and some white clover.”

Mr Stark says the mix has performed consistently well, although establishment can be a little slow. “I’d certainly recommend the cocksfoot mix for drought-tolerant pastures but it’s important to always graze it fairly tight.”

Farmer case study 2: Torton, South Gloucestershire

South Gloucestershire farmer David Moreton has mixed soil types on his farm at Tortworth, but a block of shallow gravel that had been in set-aside was sown with a cocksfoot and meadow fescue-based mixture in summer 2010.

“It was a little slow to get going but it’s looking really well now and there’s some clover in the mix that’s well-established. We took two crops of haylage off it last year,” says Mr Moreton

“You’ve got to set your aspirations at the right level with these drought-tolerant mixtures. They are never going to be the highest-yielding grasses but they endure and cope with the adverse conditions to give you a crop that you’d struggle to achieve with a mixture that didn’t have these characteristics.”

Find out more

Are you interested in making better use of grass and finding out about the role of ‘sustainable intensification’ in the UK sheep industry? Attend the seminar area for information on producing more from less, maximising forage and new feeeding opportunities for sheep.