Like most farms in the north-western region of the country, grazing conditions during the summer of 2022 have been somewhat of a mixed bag for James McCay.

July saw plenty of rain either side of the heatwave that engulfed the country around the middle of the month.

August also started off wet. But drier and warmer conditions during the second half of the month have helped build grass covers on-farm.

As James farms upland and mountain grazing, his land is not suffering from a lack of soil moisture.

Dry summers suit the farm and help to build grass covers going into the autumn breeding period for the 300-strong ewe flock.

Building grass for breeding

Silage harvesting finished up in mid-August, with 120 bales saved and a similar quantity carried over from last year. Silage ground will re-join the grazing platform once grass regrows.

All silage aftermath will be saved for grazing ewes once the breeding season begins in October, along with the best grass on the grazing block.

To help build covers, James has pushed the upland flock of crossbred ewes onto rough grazing and green hill on his mountain land. This takes the pressure off the lower lying improved grazing swards.

Ewes will remain there until early October, before coming back down to lower levels and joining the rams.

Ewes have been moved to hill ground to allow grass to build for autumn grazing.

Being a hill and upland unit running close to 1,000 feet above sea level, grass growth tends to drop off a cliff from mid-September onwards.

Therefore, the next few weeks are crucial to bank enough grass to last ewes until breeding finishes up.

Once finished, the flock will move to 30ac of winter grazing, allowing fields to rest and build grass for lambing next spring.

Wet July puts reseeding plans on hold

Earlier this year, James had plans to try and reseed some of the grassland located on the lower levels of the farm, where he tends to harvest silage and graze sheep in early spring and autumn.

He earmarked a 7ac field to rejuvenate as the existing swards were pretty much dominated with natural grasses. While it does grow a lot of grass in summer, the natural grasses are less productive in spring and late in the season.

Due to the farm’s location and grass growth curve, reseeding in April and May are not practical on James’ farm.

Land can be wet and growth is slower to take off, while those fields that are naturally drier with productive swards are needed for grazing ewes post-lambing.

Summer reseeding

Therefore, reseeding in summer is much more practical from a timing and grazing demand for livestock perspective. James had planned to reseed in early July after first-cut silage by ploughing down the old sward without burning off.

This was down to a few factors. First off, the field would have a low cover of grass when ploughed, so there would be less trash to deal with.

Secondly, the field was clean from a weed perspective.

Finally, burning off the sward would lengthen the reseeding process by at least two weeks from spraying until the sward was dead and ready to plough down.

The odds were stacked against burning off, and as things turned out, the decision not to go down this route was a good one.

Weather delay

As the 7ac field was going to be ploughed down, James spread hen dung from a neighbouring layer unit on the existing sward.

Once ploughed in, the nutrients released would feed the new grass and reduce the need for chemical fertiliser in the seedbed. However, after the dung was spread, the weather broke at the end of June and remained relatively wet until mid-July.

Once the heatwave arrived in July, by the time the field had dried out, grass growth had jumped with the dung feeding the sward.

By this stage, it was moving towards late July and the field was now carrying too much grass to directly plough down.

Therefore, the field was brought back in for grazing lambs post-weaning. Lambs are still grazing the field, but are now being drafted for slaughter.

Next year

This summer’s experience has not deterred James from reseeding the field. He now intends to get new grass established on the 7ac next year.

There is a low lying point in the field, around 0.75ac in size, with a high level of peat under the top soil. This area needs draining, so delaying the task gives James more time to get this job sorted.

A contractor will be employed to plough the field, but James will powerharrow and broadcast grass seed himself.

Drafting lambs for slaughter

Lambing usually gets underway in late March, with crossbred lambs being drafted for slaughter in late summer and early autumn.

Most of the Blackface ram lambs are sold live through the store lamb ring to free up grass for ewes late in the year.

So far, there have been 35 lambs sold for slaughter across three drafts. These animals are mostly Suffolk and Blue Leicester-sired lambs, as well as being single-born lambs.

James introduced concentrate after weaning to push lambs onto slaughter and get adequate fat cover on animals.

Lambs were initially being fed 0.25kg/head on a daily basis in portable troughs. Meal levels were then increased to 0.5kg/day just over one week ago, fed once per day.

The ration is a lamb finishing blend purchased from a local merchant and costing £362/t (€431/t) on-farm.

Meal finishing

Taking a conservative 10kg to 12kg of meal to gain 1kg of carcase weight, it is costing 362p/kg to 434p/kg (€4.30 to €5.17/kg) to gain 1kg of lamb carcase, worth around 505p/kg (€6.34/kg) in the current market.

Of course, meal feeding will substitute grass intakes, which is a cheaper feed.

However, there are merits to James’ reasons for introducing meal.

First off, he remarked that lamb performance has improved since introducing meal, particularly in the level of fat cover on ram lambs.

Blackface rams serve the hill flock, but James is considering using a Swaledale animal.

Some of the lambs drafted earlier this month were on the lean side and carcase weight was on the light side. This de-valued carcase value.

Meal feeding will improve conformation and improve kill-out percentage, thereby increasing the carcase value of the next lambs to be slaughtered.

Another advantage is that the meal feeding will stretch grass supplies at a time when James is trying to build covers for autumn breeding.

With improved weight gain, lambs will be drafted earlier than if they were left on a grass-only diet, thereby tying up grass that could be utilised by ewes next month.

Further drafting

This week, the next batch of lambs to be drafted for slaughter will be sold. Drafting weight has increased to 48kg to improve carcase finish.

These lambs are on the 7ac field James had planned to reseed and part of 100 lambs being fed for slaughter in September.

There are approximately 100 hill lambs to be sold through the store ring, with 100 ewe lambs being retained for breeding.

These lambs are split in two groups, with 50 crossbred animals for the upland flock and the other 50 lambs being pure Scottish Blackface for the hill flock.

Planning for breeding time

This autumn, James is planning to run 300 breeding ewes with the rams, plus replacements. Ewes will come down off the hill in early to mid-October, weather depending.

They will then be treated for fluke and given a mineral bolus, as well as a mineral drench, before being grouped for breeding.

Fat lambs are being fed 0.5kg/day of meal to improve carcase quality.

The 300 ewes are split evenly between the crossbred flock and the pure hill flock, plus replacements. The two flocks work well and make the best of the land being farmed.

Ram team

There are currently three Blackface rams, two Blue Leicester, two Texel, one Suffolk and a Charollais ram on farm across a mix of ages.

The Blackface rams go to the Blackface ewes. A Texel ram is also run with a carefully selected group of older Blackface ewes, but on the lower part of the farm to extend their lifespan and provide higher-quality lambs for sale.

Blue Leicester, Suffolk, Charollais and a Texel ram cover the crossbred ewes and replacements. Some of the rams are getting to the end of the breeding life span.

New sires

James may be on the market for two new rams to replace the older flock sires. A Charollais ram will directly replace the existing ram on-farm.

The second ram needed will either be a Blackface or Swaledale animal. The thinking behind Swaledale is to bring some hybrid vigour back into the hill flock.

The main objective would be that the hybrid vigour from Swaledale breeding would help reduce the number of hill ewes scanning empty, a problem that has been a common trait across the hill farms within the programme.

Farm facts

  • 130ha upland grass and hill unit.

    150 Scottish Blackface ewes.

    150 crossbred ewes.

    Lambs sold fat and as stores.

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