After several years of participating in a CAFRE Business Development Group (BDG), I have learned one definite lesson.
At the outset, there were about twenty-five individual sheep farmers in the group, with roughly twenty-five slightly differing management systems. And after two or three years of discussion, demonstration, and debate, I reckon there are still twenty-five different styles of sheep management, with most farmers fairly adamant that their set-up is ideally suited to that farm business.
And the older I get, the more I tend to feel that the nature of sheep farming has so many variables in the mixture, that trying to impose a different system will just not work unless the farmer involved feels strongly positive about giving it a go.
The variations in land type, available area, type of housing, and full or part time farming are all examples of factors that influence what system is best for each farm, and that’s before we consider attitude to breed of sheep.
Let’s face it - some shepherds think Mule ewes are less than useless, while others are convinced that unless a breeding sheep is the size of a small horse, she’s not worth bringing home. You just cannot please everyone.
The reason I mention this is because I received my silage analysis last week, and some of the results that would (twenty years ago) have given cause for concern, has merely triggered my ‘thrawn farmer’ reaction.
My entrenched attitude (“I know exactly what is best for this farm” said the dinosaur) surfaced because the best-looking batch of bales did not throw up a very impressive analysis.
It was grazed late in the spring, then cut at the end of May during drought conditions. As you might expect, the dry matter is high (53%) and protein is adequate (12.6), the sugars are fine too (4.0%), but the ME is only 9.7. However, years of experience (some of it as bitter as wet silage) tells me that this fodder is almost ideal for what I am hoping to achieve.
For a start, the bales are a pleasure to handle and move around the yard. Secondly, the grass can be carried in armfuls if necessary, without gloves and the subsequent lingering aroma. Thirdly, the stock (without exception) prefer it to all the other bales, and lastly, the sheep eating it have maintained body condition in mid pregnancy, something which is not always the case.
I am not for one second suggesting setting out with the aim of making low energy silage for sheep, but I do think that high dry matter combined with a bit of grass quality is ideal for making into bales.
Equally, if I was feeding sheep from the middle of a clamp, where perhaps cattle were being fed the tops and edges, then I’d be far less concerned about dry matter, and might aim for highly digestible grass.
In my experience, the nightmare scenario is low dry matter, high energy bales because apart from being hard to manoeuvre into feeders, there is a huge question mark over palatability and intake for sheep. Of course, I have also made a batch of this type too.
Due to the small crop of grass during the drought, we cut again in July, but ran into a bit of dodgy weather. Rather than risking a night’s rain, we went ahead and baled 60 good ‘juicy’ sorts. The analysis for them is the opposite of the first batch: low dry matter (17%), high energy (11.7 ME), good protein (14.0%), but low sugars (0.9%).
The fermentation is fine, and they smell sweet, but I am feeding them to cattle.
Maybe I should ask the other members of our BDG which of these samples they’d prefer, although perhaps that isn’t such a bright idea. I might end up with twenty-five different answers.