Alternative forages are cheap insurance for winter

Unpredictable weather and a lack of grass mean many sheep farmers may be forced to look at alterative feeds this winter. Sarah Trickett investigates the options

Is there going to be enough grass this year? Will this winter be as harsh? These are both questions sheep producers across the country are asking themselves at the moment and the problem is, no-one is sure.

But for those producers concerned about forage shortages in future months there are “insurance crops” available for sowing this summer, says Martin Titley of Limagrain.

“More and more people are thinking about alternative forages in light of recent weather and alterative forage crops essentially act as an insurance crop. When the grass is not there, at least there will be something to feed.”

And it’s for this exact reason Lincolnshire sheep farmer John Farrow grows about 8ha (20 acres) of stubble turnips, kale and some forage rape. “It’s useful to always have something in the ground and can act as a stopgap when lambs haven’t finished.”

And with just a few weeks left to sow most forage seeds, farmers should be making decisions now about what to do, adds Mr Titley.

“Forage crops such as swedes and kale are too late to sow as the cut-off date for sowing is June for swedes and the second week of July for kale.” That leaves stubble turnips, forage rape, forage rye and lucerne as the main options, with many ready to sow after cereals have been harvested.

Stubble turnips

Alterative forage such as stubble turnips are a fast food source for sheep, explains Mr Titley. “After barley has been taken off, stubble turnip seeds can be planted from July to mid-August with little input. You can then just sit back and watch them grow until they are ready to graze in situ after 13-14 weeks.”

Stubble Turnips

  • Fast growing

  • Autumn or winter feed

  • Bulb size important

  • Sown May-June/July-August
  • Sown at 5kg/ha

  • Cost £317/ha

  • DM yield 3.5-4t/ha

But the important decision to make when growing stubble turnips is the size of root to go for. “When you are planning on feeding stubble turnips early, large roots may be the better option, as they have a high yield potential, but they are less winter hardy.

“Smaller bulbs sit further into the ground, making them perfect for feeding either early or later in the winter, as they can survive severe frost.”

And it’s the fact stubble turnips are winter-hardy that makes them attractive to Mr Farrow. “Because we lamb 70-100 of our 550-ewe flock early in January we need to have a good feed source and the stubble turnips, along with the rest of the forage mix, survive well over winter to feed to the early-lambing flock.”

Growing stubble turnips is also cost-effective, with costs of £317/ha, adds Mr Titley. “The sorts of yields you can expect to see are 3.5-4t DM/ha and costs based on £68/t DM.”

Forage rape

Forage rape is another fast food option, ready 14 weeks from sowing. Forage rape is more winter-hardy, meaning it can be taken in to February. It is also has a longer sowing gap and can go in the ground even up to September.

Forage rape

  • Fast-growing
  • High protein
  • Ideal companion to stubble turnips
  • Sown May to August
  • Sown at 6kg/ha
  • Cost £418/ha
  • DM yield 3.5t/ha

However, it is a more expensive option compared to stubble turnips, not only because it is longer lasting but because there is more wastage. “Growing cost is £418/ha and dry matter £109/t,” says Mr Titley.

But to get the best of both worlds and have a longer lasting crop with good feed value, planting a stubble turnip-forage rape mixture could be the option, explains Mr Titley.

“Mixing the two means you get the benefit of the high ME from the turnips’ 11MJ/kg of DM and the high protein from the forage rape of 19-20%. And because rape is taller than the turnips it protects them more from frost and is a good combination to finish lambs on.”

Gaining a better-balanced feed is also a good reason for growing a forage mix, says Mr Farrow. “It gives a better-balanced feed and the ewes do well on it. However, timing is everything and you need a little moisture to get the crop going.”

Both these crops also fit nicely into a rotation, adds Mr Titley. “When you are going in after cereals, you can then use this period to bring weeds under control. Then in the spring you can go in with a grass reseed. It is a rotation that works well.”

Forage rye

But for those wishing to fill the “hungry gap” of March and April, then forage rye is the crop to grow, according to Mr Titley. “In a year like this one forage rye would have been the crop to grow with a lack of grass about at turnout. This is a crop you should grow when you want to turn out early about two to three weeks before grass,” he says.

Forage Rye

  • Early turnout
  • Sowing August-September
  • Sown at 185kg/ha
  • Cost £364/ha
  • DM yield 5-6t/ha

Forage rye can also be sown up to September and is flexible and durable over the winter months. “This is a cereal that is bred for forage production rather than grain. It can either be strip-grazed and or big-baled and has a crude protein level of 11-12% and an energy value of 10MJ/kg of DM. It is a great feed for winter keep.”

And with growing costs of £364/ha and the financial benefit from early turnout, it makes forage rye a desirable crop to grow.

Mr Farrow has previously grown forage rye for his early lambing flock, but hasn’t done it for the past couple of years. “Forage rye is a good crop to grow when you want to produce a lot of bulky, poorer quality feed. But because of its poor feed value, I decided not to grow any more.”


Lucerne is the last option but, as Mr Titley explains, it isn’t for everyone. “The main criterion for lucerne is free-draining land and, unlike other catch crops mentioned, it isn’t as fast establishing and takes a few years to show the benefits.”


  • High yields 60t/ha
  • Protein 20-25%
  • Silage, hay or zero grazing
  • Cost £1468/ha

“The first year is really the establishment phase, but in the following years you could get up to three cuts which can be silaged or cut for hay.” Mr Titley doesn’t recommend grazing sheep on lucerne in situ because of the threat of bloat.

“This is a high-protein crop and has the potential to yield 14-15t/ha a year of DM. However, it does need care and attention and, because it is a high-protein cutting crop at 20-25%, it is more expensive to grow at £1468/ha. Growing this crop requires an arable mentality, but would suit sheep farmers because of the high protein content,” adds Mr Titley.

And lucerne is something Mr Farrow is considering putting in after winter barley this year. “I understand it is a difficult crop to control, but because of it’s high protein I am planning on making it in to silage and then later will turn weaned lambs on to it.”