Regeneration key to better sheep returns
CONTINUED emphasis on grassland regeneration is part of the Royal Agricultural Colleges policy for improving sheep returns.
Theres no point changing a system for the sake of it, said RACs farms director Mike Limb. He told visitors at the sheep evening that to some extent he has faith in its system of 1000 spring lambing Mule ewes put to high index Suffolk, Texel and Meatlinc rams.
It employs one full-time shepherd, with three to four contract staff at lambing. Lambs are sold deadweight, finished off dairy pasture or stubble turnips.
"The lambing pattern and sheep system suits grass growth on this farm. But there other options," he said.
These include May lambing, but this is not suitable as the colleges sheep ground is spread around and not in one block, he said. "We could lamb earlier, turnout to grass and push lambs with creep, but I dont have enough faith in this working."
Early turnout often ruins grass because its too wet at the college, said Mr Limb. But it is following a policy of pasture regeneration.
"We are trying to introduce clover into permanent pasture. But this is difficult because much of the land is ridge and furrow, which causes mechanical difficulties. And sheep and clover establishment dont actually go together."
The college burnt off the sward with glyphosate last autumn and then introduced clover and perennial ryegrass. But there was probably too much grass, because of the wet summer and autumn, when it was burnt off.
It was acknowledged that difficulties with the system had occurred; such as grass being burnt off too heavily and sheep selecting out clover. But the college still managed to increase clover content from nothing to 8%.
Flockmasters are warned never to neglect margins
Financial management and
strengthening your business
are keys to survival but
three industry sources came
up with different answers
to current concerns at a
recent sheep evening.
James Garner reports
THERE is little good news on the horizon for sheep production, but many flockmasters feel there are things that can be done to ensure they survive the current crisis.
But some serious questions must be asked of your business, says Signet consultant Peter Fairbank. He told visitors at a Grassland Management – Practice into Profit sheep evening held at the Royal Agricultural Colleges farm, Harnhill, Cirencester, Glos to consider this: Do you keep sheep or are they keeping you?
"Maintain efficient output and reduce costs where possible, but not to the extent it affects margins." Taking last years MLC/Signet results, Mr Fairbank said that even top third performing recorded flocks only achieved a gross profit of £16 a ewe, using Nix and SAC handbook for average fixed costs.
But £16 a ewe is only 23% of output, below the target figure of 30% according to SAC profit benchmarks (see table). "SAC figures also suggest that you need 15% of net profit to have a sustainable business and leave you enough to live on, he said.
"Last years flock performance figures show that average flocks lost £8 a ewe while top third flocks are just breaking even at the net profit level."
He advised taking a close look at lamb mortality in particular where he said the bottom third flocks were losing 20% of lambs, including barren ewes and ewe deaths after tupping.
Having a skilled, dedicated shepherd is the success of many flocks, said Mr Fairbank. "But aim for a compact, tight lambing period to keep casual labour costs down. Also try to keep breeding ewes that are easy-lambing and can rear lambs at grass."
Another management area to examine is preventing gut damage by worms, which can reduce stomach efficiency by 30%. It may be worth considering a worm testing kit, he said.
"I know of one producer who saved a complete flock worming by using a worm egg counter; this paid for the worm kit."
Producers were also warned that scald can cause 100g/day of lost growth in lambs. Scald has been a major problem in the last two seasons, he said.
Grass ley use placed under the spotlight
POOR financial returns from sheep last year forced one Hants estate to examine its policy of using grass leys as part of an arable rotation.
However, Faccombe estates general manager David Harbottle told visitors at the sheep evening that he had examined three scenarios to turn his sheep enterprise into profit.
The estate has run 3000 May lambing ewes and 450 dry ewe lambs during this decade. But the system has been modified over the years.
Lambing maiden gimmer ewes outside in May is hard work – the ewes are prone to being a bit scatty and difficult to handle.
"Also, old ewes which have lost their teeth cannot eat enough grass to carry themselves and two lambs which means they lose condition in late summer.
"We decided to move maiden gimmers and old ewes to March lambing, with ewes and lambs being turned out to grass before May lambers start."
But this meant altering the cost structure to make the flock profitable, said Mr Harbottle. He considered three options; selling 1000 ewes and making one member of staff redundant; selling 2000 ewes and making two staff redundant or selling all the sheep and returning to an all-arable rotation.
Despite the latter option being the most cost-effective, Mr Harbottle said the estate decided to compromise. "I have put my neck on the line, but believe that in two years, sheep will be profitable."
Cutting the sheep flock to 2800 ewes and no longer buying in ewe lambs meant it was possible to lose one staff member.
"This has changed our cost structure. But it means that arable staff will need to help out and contractors will do specific sheep tasks such as round-tailing."
Lambs from the March lambing flock will be pushed on with creep feed to sell by the end of July and reduce grazing pressure. Any ewes with five lamb crops will now be culled as part of a strict policy to help reduce workload, said Mr Harbottle.
"Selling the whole sheep flock would mean that the farms fertility would suffer. I have every confidence that sheep will still be here in two years time. If we sell 1.65 lambs a ewe at £30 a lamb on our system we can be profitable," he said. *
Reseeding to lift yields
By Robert Davies
RESEEDING grassland at Harper Adams University farm is the first stage of the Shropshire units involvement in the Practice into Profit project.
Replacing 12ha (27 acres) of old and somewhat tired leys this year, and another 16ha (40 acres) in 2000, was planned anyway. No decisions had been taken on the composition of mixtures for grazing and conservation.
Liam Sinclair, senior lecturer in milk production at Harper, anticipates that rejuvenating leys and improving management will push up yield from forage from about 3000 litres to more than 3500 litres/cow.
For intensive grazing the mixture, sown at the rate of 37.1kg/ha (15kg/ac), contains 9.8kg of both AberLinnet tetraploid hybrid ryegrass and AberSilo perennial ryegrass, and 7.1kg of both Gilford and Tivoli perennial ryegrasses; 2.5kg of AberDairy white clover blend completes the mixture.
With 120 of the 180 cows in the dairy herd calving at the end of the year grass silage is very important. The silage mixture to be sown at the rate of 40kg/ha (16kg/acre) is made up of 16kg of AberLinnet and 9.8kg of AberExcel tetraploid perennial ryegrass and 12.35kg of AberSilo. The clover fraction contains 0.49kg of AberDairy blend and 1.9kg of Aran very large leaf white clover.
Extending lactations to provide the mixture of spring and autumn calving cows needed for new research programmes has damaged performance over the last year. But even before reseeding, the January-February calvers are now on target to produce 7500 litres/cow, and Dr Sinclair expects the autumn calvers to eventually average around 8500 litres.
"The physical and financial performance has been less than satisfactory, but the herd is settling down again and we are back on track for achieving a reasonable bottom line," he claims.
With high stocking rates, grassland fertiliser policy has always aimed to ensure sufficient herbage is available, so the historical contribution of white clover has been limited. Careful monitoring as part of the project will indicate the potential of new varieties for grazing and silage. There is also the possibility of growing a crop such as red clover to cut purchased protein bills.
Best practice at Harper will involve looking at the optimum way of using a mixture of whole-crop wheat and grass and maize silages. It is considered to be more economic to harvest 3.5ha (8.7 acres) of whole-crop in July, for feeding to autumn calvers in the period before maize becomes available, than to carry over maize silage from the previous year. The plan is to finish it all before the clamp is needed for maize.
The farm is also one of three centres involved in another trial looking at extended grazing and how autumn sward management affects subsequent grass growth.
Average weather conditions dictate that early turnout rather than winter grazing is a better bet at the farm. A wedge of grass will be created to allow cows to go out as soon as ground conditions permit, and not in mid-April as in the past.
The project is being run by the Department of Animal Production. Its head, John Roberts, believes that the 180 degree and HND students who leave Harper Adams each year will benefit from following the way best practice project evolves over three years, and will disseminate the information widely. The planned series of farmer open days and seminars will do the same.
"This, after all, is what technology transfer is all about. Whatever happens all our figures will be made public."
Project manager and lecturer Jim Huntington agrees and hopes that students will benefit from being practically involved at every stage.
"This is an opportunity to pull together all the threads that make up best practice for grassland and dairy herd management. The open days will be very important," says Dr Huntington. "As co-ordinator of the local BGS discussion group, I have seen the considerable benefits of farmers looking at and discussing the ways others do the job." *
Grassland Management – Practice into Profit aims to help improve grass use through better use of new developments and technology, and will give free guidance and advice to producers through open days and meetings at the seven college sites. The project is sponsored by MAFF, MDC, MLC, British Seed Houses, Barclays Bank, farmers weekly and BGS.