Farmers are being advised to review grass performance and decide on management for the months ahead, so pastures are set ready for optimum performance in 2014.
According to EBLEX senior livestock scientist Liz Genever, it has been a strange grazing season, with a very wet start, a dry middle and a wet autumn. “It is likely grass availability will be good, but the ability to graze it may be restricted due to ground conditions,” she says.
Most sheep producers will be relying on grass to fulfil all of the feed requirements for ewes during early- to mid-pregnancy. During this time, they can play an important role in tidying up fields which have got away during the season.
“Ewes can normally graze down to three to four centimetres without any impact on performance and they can “hoover” up parasites from infected pastures, as their immune system minimises the number of worms establishing in their gut. However, ewes should not be pushed to graze this hard when they are below target body condition or after scanning,” warns Dr Genever.
Grazing swards down tight basically resets the grass and controls areas where it may have gone to head, so any future grass produced will be of higher quality. Any unutilised growth will deteriorate over winter and the spring output will be compromised.
But try to avoid poaching by having multiple troughs or feeders, access points and gateways, so animals don’t need to congregate in one small area.
“When establishing the appropriate winter grazing plan for your farm, the first thing to think about is which fields are likely to get wet earliest, with the aim of resetting them first. Next graze the fields that will be grazed first in spring to give them time to grow grass. In winter, it can take a grass plant up to 90 days to replace its leaves, so fields for grazing around lambing will need some time to recover,” says Dr Genever.
Dr Genever says some producers are rationing grass by allocating it according to requirements, using electric fencing and moving sheep frequently to ensure grazing pressure is maintained. “This grazing strategy is called all-grass wintering or cell grazing and it can help to keep grass in front of ewes until spring, saving on other feed costs. However, it is not appropriate for all situations and is labour intensive.”
Reassess grass production
It is also a useful time to assess how well fields have performed over the year, she says. “This can be done with lamb growth rates or ewe body condition score, as well as silage yield records or the number of grazing days each field has supported. Fields which have required the most topping might also have problems worth reviewing.”
Once fields that need improvement have been identified, take a closer look at the sward composition, assess weed problems and dig a hole to look for compaction.
Any remedial action or reseeding can then be planned and the poorest-performing fields given the highest priority. A soil test should also be performed, to check whether lime is needed or low phosphate or potash could be limiting grass growth.
Further information can be found in the EBLEX BRP manuals on improving pasture and soils, planning grazing strategies and the Grass MOT document, which can be found at www.eblex.org.uk/returns/. A new BRP+ document on all-grass wintering is also available.
Read more on all-grass wintering