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Grassland Development Farm
The meeting commenced with an update of what has occurred on the farm since the last meeting. During June there had been very little rainfall and the farm was looking very short of grass. The decision to start feeding store cattle at grass was almost taken in late June although they always had enough grass in front of them and performance seemed good.
In the last week of June the silage was cut. The second application of N was followed by good rainfall. This has led to phenomenal grass growth in July and early August. Silage yield was down and around 100 acres have been fertilised and shut off for second cut. This may be further enhanced by taking some baled silage from other surplus grass around the farm.
Grass growth in 2010
(Kg Dry matter/hectare/day)
14th to 25th April 25
25th April to 10th May 43
10th to 18th May 46
18th to 28th May 75 – building up to peak growth
28th May to 10th June 33 – drought affected
10th to 23rd June 30 – drought affected
23rd June to 18th July 75 – rainfall and fertiliser
18th June to 4th August 60
The season got off to a late start with grass growth about 3 weeks behind last year. Interestingly young grass (under 5 years) grew at twice the rate of old grass, which shows the benefit of re-seeding in a difficult year. Peak growth would normally be in late May/early June. This year the dry weather restricted growth during June but it has been very high in July.
The group then travelled to an area of the farm we had not seen before. Firstly we stopped at the top of Hawkcleuchside, which is permanent pasture currently being grazed by cows and calves. Due to the dry weather this year it has only half the usual number of cattle with another group having to be grazed elsewhere. This area is one that still has lime, P & K applied but no longer receives Nitrogen. This regime started last year – whilst last year was a better growing season there may have been some residual N to aid grass growth. This year there was no residual N and, coupled with the dry weather led to very low grass growth until mid July. There were some good patches of White Clover – encouraged this year by the lack of competition from other grasses in early season. This area is ideal to try and get more White Clover stitched in to provide free Nitrogen. Coupled with a grazing system that rotates cattle from one field to another, occasional sheep grazing and good pH, P & K status should allow good establishment and maintenance of clover. Stitching methods could either be with tine harrows or with Aitchison or Moores direct drills.
The group then moved onto the hill area. This is a good grassy hill with some rocky outcrops and bracken patches. The hill was previously managed traditionally with Blackfaced sheep. However to aid labour efficiency this has been discontinued and Blackies are now managed differently. The hill is used by Blackie ewes with pure lambs and ewe hoggs but is largely undergrazed for the bulk of the growing season. It is currently used as a buffer zone to provide grass to stock in late season if required. This year it has some cast cows and their calves that had to be moved out of sight of bulls and most of the dry sheep will be grazed on the hill after weaning as well.
A lively discussion was held regarding its use – some thought that the cast cows should be on better ground to get fattened up as soon as possible. One suggestion was to winter dry cows on deferred grazing on the hill. This is a tried and tested wintering system on other local farms. However some downsides to this idea are the distance from the steading (4 miles), lack of handling facilities and the need to acclimatise cattle to ticks first.
However another suggestion was that sucklers should be on the hill all the time leaving better ground lower down for growing cattle and (more profitable!!) crossbred sheep. It was also suggested that the dry cross ewes should not be allowed to lose condition on the hill as it will take more grass to put it back on than it does to maintain condition. Currently the vegetation is high quality and this should maintain condition easily.
Wintering sheep in mid pregnancy is another option for the hill – there are tick products approved for sheep (none for cattle) and this could keep a lot of ewes for a couple of months with some supplementation – feed blocks may be better than daily feeding in this case due to the distances involved.
The group then saw the store cattle on rotational grazing. The cattle seem to be doing very well again this year although we have no interim weights. The cattle will be weighed before sale and it is proposed to sell them at similar store sales to last year in September & October.
Grass utilisation is high and the tight grazing in early season was evidenced by the quality of grass currently with very little dead material in the base of the sward. The cattle are now getting moved a day sooner that they had been in early season – the risk of heading is now over, we need to maintain grass intakes to sustain growth rates and there will be plenty of lambs/ewes to utilise the grass from now on. There is also more rejection around dung pats in late season but sheep will graze further into these than cattle.
It is proposed to feed each group for two weeks before each sale. This will not have a major effect on growth rates but will add a bit of shine to them before sale. Lively discussions were held on what the marketing policy should be. Last year was an excellent year to sell stores but there is little doubt the trade will be down this year. Finished price is also down currently but may strengthen later on so should Doug aim to be finishing some by mid November for the Christmas market?
The cattle are not as forward this year as last so this may enhance the £/kg store price but without the weight of last year. There may also be more marketing options in future from the Beef Improvement Group via Morrison's. One final point is that calving from mid April does not give much time to finish cattle at grass the following year. Calving earlier would have major effects on the whole farming system though. Avoiding very late calvers should be aimed for though and as the herd becomes “purer” it should be easier to fatten cattle at grass. Another option may be to feed a small amount of cereals at grass during the whole season. This can be discussed again in the future.
The Irish have devised a system of monitoring grass growth called the Grazing Days Ahead (GDA) method. Each week the amount of grass DM available is divided by the demand of all the stock for the area. The figure refers to the number of days grazing the group have available at that moment in time. In spring and early summer there needs to be 20-24 GDA, mid summer 26-30 GDA and in late summer/autumn 40-50 GDA. If there are too many then fields need to be taken out for silage or reseeding. If too few then buffer feeding and applying more N are two of the options available. At South Mains in mid June the average GDA for the store cattle was 20, which was about right. Had the dry weather continued then the situation would have worsened. As at 2nd August the average GDA for the store cattle was 40 days, which is on the high side currently and should allow a field or two to be taken out for silage.
Kev Bevan outlined the GM results from last year. Sheep GM was £54/hd, suckler cows £256/hd and store cattle £137/hd (these two are obviously subject to the valuation of stores at transfer). Interestingly the GM/Livestock Unit was highest for sheep and store cattle. Some heated debate followed this revelation with beef advocates outnumbering sheep fans significantly. The main issue is that both cattle and sheep rely on the other and the task is to achieve the correct balance of enterprises to suit the resources available on your farm.
The final stop was at Goosehill. This was where 110 ewes and twins had been rotationally grazed on 3 fields since mid May with two other fields taken for silage having been grazed earlier. The benefits of rotational grazing were obvious in that the grass quality and quantity were excellent although sheep performance had been lower than expected (based on the number of lambs drawn from this group to date). A brief discussion followed on strategies for worm control, led by Heather Stevenson, SAC vet, Dumfries. Finally the issue of weaning lambs was raised. All lambs were due to be weaned imminently. There is little point in leaving lambs on ewes beyond 14 weeks of age. The ewes' feed requirement is halved at weaning and lambs can be finished on high quality aftermath grazing.