By Darren Carty Irish Grassland Association Sheep Conference Chairman and Irish Farmers Journal
The run up to this year’s Irish Grassland Association Sheep Conference and Farm Walk saw the topic of weather frequently enter planning discussions. Grass supply on host farmers, Gordon and Yvonne Johnston’s farm seesawed from surplus to deficit on a number of occasions before finally settling down for the day. Unfortunately, weather or namely unfavourable weather has continued to dominate the headlines since the event.
While dictating the weather is well outside of our control, both the conference and farm walk left delegates with numerous practical and relevant tips that are well within their grasp and will greatly enhance their farming enterprise. The Johnston’s demonstrated how doing the simple things right and careful attention to detail provide a strong foundation for excellent performance.
Farming activities on the farm differ from the norm. No silage is harvested with saved grass, straw and concentrates making up the winter diet. Reseeding is also not seen as priority with Gordon admitting that reseeding would only be worthwhile if he was increasing stock numbers. Despite doing some things differently there is no arguing with the performance being achieved. The scanning rate in mature ewes is over two lambs per ewe with between 1.8-1.9 lambs reared per ewe to the ram. The gross margin in 2011 was also first rate at over €900 per hectare.
In concluding the walk, Gordon had a piece of very valuable advice for farmers considering expanding their flock or increasing the stocking rate. He warned farmers against increasing flock numbers until performance with existing numbers reached a satisfactory level. He said that once this was achieved there is potential to drive performance and output up another notch while increasing output without doing the simple things right will actually in most cases leave the farm in a worse position than where it started.
The morning conference session detailed targeted advice for flockowners to improve their enterprise. There was a similar theme across all presentations with all speakers touching on the the importance of having a structured plan.
Analysis presented by Ciaran Lynch, Teagasc, of the progress on the lowland Teagasc BETTER sheep farms showed excellent performance and an average increase in gross physical output of 148% from 2009 to 2011.Improving technical efficiency also resulted in variable costs reducing by 5% despite increases in flock size and significant investments in correcting soil fertility issues. These two factors, combined with an increase in market values, have resulted in gross margins increasing by 250% or €440 per hectare (Table 2.)
Ciaran Lynch told attendees that while increased market values have had a positive influence on farm gross margins increasing productivity has been responsible for 58% of the increase in gross margins. Table 1 shows the gains made in average flock performance over the last three years and the target performance within the programme. As can be seen in the table, litter size, the percentage of ewes lambed and lambs weaned per ewe put to the ram have all improved significantly. Lamb mortality has also been maintained at a low level despite higher litter sizes and an increase in the number of lambs born.
A number of areas were identified as being the key drivers of increased performance since the Teagasc BETTER Sheep Farm Programme begun in autumn 2008. On joining the programme, the first job undertaken was to develop a 3 to 5 year plan for each farm. Baseline information was collected and areas where improvements were required were identified following discussions with the farmer, Teagasc Research, Specialists and local advisory staff. The main areas highlighted on each farm were flock size, breeding policy, grassland management, parasite control, winter management and farm layout changes.
Flock output: At the start of the programme, flock size ranged from 60 to 330 ewes. This has now increased to 90 to 650 ewes with an increase in stocking rate identified as an area with strong potential to drive output. Stocking rate on individual farms has increased from 7 to 10 ewes per hectare to between 10-13 ewes per hectare. Ewe prolificacy was also seen as central to increasing output with a breeding policy developed for each flock.
Grassland management: An autumn grazing management plan was introduced to ensure sufficient grass was available in spring. Fields were closed in a rotational manner with ewes housed to give paddocks a recovery period. Where it was not possible to house all sheep, extended grazing was adopted. In some cases the lambing date was delayed to coincide with normal grass supply to reduce the requirement for supplementation.
Large paddocks were divided to alleviate rotational grazing and this combined with grass measuring provided the foundation for improved grassland management and increased animal performance from grazed grass. Correcting soil fertility and implementing a reseeding programme for poorer performing areas is an ongoing measure that is requiring significant investment but will lead to long term benefits in improved grassland and animal performance.
Parasite control and anthelmintic resistance: Anthelmintic resistance was quickly identified as a high risk issue. Therefore the approach on the BETTER farms was to adopt a more sustainable strategy to parasite control. Once lambs reached 10 weeks of age flock faecal samples are collected by flockowners and submitted for analysis to Teagasc Athenry. This provides the basis of dosing decisions on the farms with tests also completed to check the efficacy of products used.
The Teagasc BETTER Sheep Farm Programme is being expanded from the initial 4 lowland flocks and three hill flocks by the addition of three lowland sheep flocks. This brings the total flocks in Phase 2 of the programme to 10. Reports from individual flocks will be included in subsequent articles.
Table 1: Average BETTER farm flock performance over the past 3 seasons
2008/2009 2009/10 2010/11 Target
Litter Size 1.71 1.77 1.86 1.9
Ewes lambed (%) 90.2 93.8 97.3 >94
Lamb mortality (%) 7.8 8 8.5 1.6
Table 2: Financial performance of flocks for the 3 seasons (€/ha)
2009 2010 2011 % change yr 1 to yr 3
Gross output 857 1051 1271 148
Total variable costs 567 520 540 -5
Gross margin 290 531 731 252
Having a structured plan in place, that lays a clear path to progress upon and identifies key targets that can be monitored and assessed is central in developing an efficient enterprise. This was the view given by sheep farmer and IGA committee member John Fagan in his presentation. John started farming in 2002 and in 2008 took a decision to concentrate on expanding his sheep enterprise.
This witnessed the sheep flock increasing from 400 ewes in 2008 to 1350 ewes going to the ram in 2011. This included lambing 500 ewe lambs in spring 2011 and 300 ewe lambs in spring 2012. The rise in numbers is quite exceptional and represents a significant investment in stock. Breeding ewe lambs was seen as the lowest cost option to grow the sheep flock on a yearly basis. Implementing a breeding policy at the outset was important in setting up a flock that will deliver high levels of animal performance but also minimise the workload during the transition. The chosen breed had to be capable of performing in an outdoor or indoor lambing environment. Mule ewe lambs were identified as the basis of the flock due to their prolificacy, hardiness and ease of lambing and mothering ability. Terminal sires were then selected to bring improved conformation and increased growth rates to the cross.
Long term the plan is to phase out purchasing replacements by retaining Texel and Suffolk cross ewe lambs from the best performing Mule ewes. John feels that this will reduce the risk of importing disease or potential problems into the flock while also having more control of the genetic merit of animals selected for breeding.
An underlying component of all targets set and decisions made is to utilise grass to its maximum potential. Constructing new housing, splitting large fields into smaller fields, correcting soil fertility and implementing a reseeding plan are just some of the targets set “in many respects I am a grass farmer. I grow grass, sheep and cattle eat it and convert it to meat and I get paid”.
The transition was carried out within the constraints of the farming system with margins generated invested back into the farm over the last three years. Initially, a percentage of ewes were housed in a slatted shed by simply rolling out a deep bed of straw over the slats. But, long term, a more focused plan was needed to allow sheep to be housed over the winter months to have an adequate grass supply in spring. In 2011, a new sheep house was constructed to give the option of housing the majority of sheep. John has already seen the benefit of this in increased grass supply and reduced supplementary feed costs.
Maximising gain from grass
Field size was a major concern with paddocks ranging from 20 acres to 50 acres in size. This left grass management near impossible with animal performance also suffering as a result. Grant aid and investment in fencing and installing water has resulted in field size now reducing to 15 acres. John sees this as a key component of growing more grass and allowing stocking levels to be increased to 1.7LU/ha.
Correcting soil fertility and reseeding underperforming swards are also essential in increasing the level of grass grown. Transferring from a tillage, beef and sheep enterprise has seen a large percentage of the farm reseeded in the last three to four years. John aims to keep a reseeding plan in operation with a target of reseeding about 10% of the farm on a yearly basis.
Long term goals
John admits that he has often been questioned as to why he did not enter dairy farming. His response is simple. Dairy farming requires a high level of capital investment, markets may be more volatile than sheep and at the end of the day he says you have to make a decision that suits both you and the farm. He advises any farmer progressing down any system to take a step back and look at where you want to be in 3, 5 or even 10 years time. The plan does not need to be set in stone but it will give you direction and focus of where you want to be. “in my enthusiasm as a young sheep farmer I used to think I could do it all in one year. Obviously, this is not possible but what has turned my farm around is having a clear objective of where I am going and how I want to get there”.
Digestibility is the most important factor influencing silage feed value and consequently the performance of animals offered silage. This was the advice of Tim Keady, Teagasc Athenry in his paper ‘High feed value grass silage; its importance and production’. Tim said that most of the factors that determine silage digestibility are within the control of the producer. Therefore silage digestibility can be influenced by adhering to the following guidelines
Harvest date: Tim said harvest date is the most important factor affecting both herbage digestibility and yield. He said yield increases the later the harvest date but this has a direct influence on reducing digestibility. A DMD of 75% should be targeted for ewes in mid and late pregnancy, finishing cattle and dairy cows. Tim advises mid May as the target harvest date for swards closed in late autumn. Where swards have been grazed in spring, his advice is to harvest after a regrowth interval of 6 to 7 weeks. He warns against delaying the harvest by more than 4 to 5 days in the hope of achieving a wilt in dull weather as digestibility is declining.
Sward type: Silage produced from old permanent pasture has a lower digestibility than silage produced from a perennial ryegrass sward. But silage produced from old permanent pasture has the potential to consistently produce high feed value silage, provided it is harvested at the correct stage of growth. Base the harvest date on inspection of the sward checking for the emergence of seed heads and also the occurrence of dead/decaying leaf and stem at the base of the sward.
Fertiliser N application: Recommended rates are 120kg/ha (100 units/acre) and 100kg/ha (80 units/acre) for first and second cuts respectively. Where the sward has been grazed prior to first cut and has received N fertiliser, it should be assumed that 20-30% of the application is still present and therefore recommended rates can be reduced accordingly.
Source of nitrogen: Urea is generally the cheapest form of N fertiliser but CAN is recommended where applying N to bare swards in April or during dry weather to reduce the risk of N being lost due to volatisation.
P & K and soil fertility levels: Inadequate P & K levels will reduce herbage yield and reduce the response to fertiliser N. Each tonne of herbage dry matter removes 25kg of potassium. Recommended rates will depend on soil fertility and whether or not slurry or farmyard manure has been applied. The soil pH should be maintained by regular soil analysis and application of recommended quantities of lime. Lime should be applied after the last harvest of the season.
Crop lodging: Crop lodging will accelerate the rate of decline in herbage digestibility due to an accumulation of dead leaf and stem at the base of the sward.
Wilting: Silage should be ensiled after a 24 to 30 hour period if wilting. The advice is not to wilt to a higher dry matter concentration above 25% as this may result in aerobic instability problems at the time of feeding. This may be particularly a problem during mild weather. Prolonged wilting may also reduce digestibility.
Mowing height: Mowing to a stubble height of 5-6cm is recommended to minimise the level of stem and dead material (and potentially soil contamination) which will reduce digestibility.
Additives: Additives should be seen as an aid and not as a solution to poor management. Additives should be chosen on their proven ability to increase animal performance. Use bacterial inoculants under a wide range of ensiling conditions or formic acid under difficult ensiling conditions.
Chop length: Chop length affects silage intake by sheep with shorter chop lengths desirable. Precision chop is the best choice, provided it does not interfere with the date of harvest, cost of ensiling and suits the storage system on the farm.
Ensiling management: Ensiling should be rapid with walls side sheeted to aid sealing. Cover the clamp with two sheets of polythene and weigh down with tyres or other adequate material.
Jason Barley and Connor McMahon gave a presentation on the problem of anthelmintic resistance and advice to limit its development. To do the presentation justice, it will be covered in detail at a later stage.