July has been an extremely dry month across Northern Ireland and when combined with the recent spell of hot weather, grass growth has been affected on the programme farms.
While some of the farms working on drier soils have seen grass supplies dwindling, others working on heavier land have seen grass growth holding up, with swards being cleaned out tight to the ground.
This week, we feature a round-up of the current grazing situation on some of the NI sheep programme farms, and see how they have been dealing with the recent dry spell up to the start of this week.
Paraic and his father Seamus work on dry, lighter soils in the eastern half of the province, which is prone to less rainfall.
The farm last got rain just over three weeks ago. Since then, high temperatures have seen soil moisture levels rapidly depleting.
Paraic measures grass growth weekly and last week, there were 16 days ahead of stock. This week, grazing days ahead of stock are down to 11 days.
With all lambs weaned, the dry ewes have been stocked tightly on bare ground and this has freed up grass for lambs and the cattle on-farm.
The farm has a mix of young grazing swards with a high clover content, as well as predominantly ryegrass swards with little clover content.
The young clover swards have really come into their own during the dry spell, whereas the ryegrass swards have struggled for regrowth.
During the past two weeks, Paraic has been mob grazing the lambs to try and keep on top of regrowth on the clover paddocks.
There are five high clover paddocks in the rotation, accounting for around 10ac in total. Each paddock lasts four days before lambs are moved.
However, Paraic has found that three paddocks are currently meeting grazing demand for lambs. To maintain sward quality, lambs were moved back to the first paddock after finishing the third paddock.
This has allowed Paraic to take out the fourth and fifth clover paddocks for silage last week, totaling four acres. Dry weather provided ideal conditions for wilting clover and the paddock yielded four bales per acre.
The decision was made to take the paddocks out last week, so that it would be available for grazing again should it be required in the next fortnight.
Lambs offloaded for slaughter this week have maintained high levels of weight gain from a grass-only diet since weaning.
Weight gains are holding at 270g to 280g/day, highlighting the quality of grazing swards. Grass samples on the grazing swards were analysed for feed value in mid-July and protein levels were typically 21% and 11.2 ME (energy).
The lack of rain at Tynan Abbey has also caused problems for Kate and Peter. At the start of July, the farm was carrying a significant surplus of grass, but is now running into a deficit.
While there is grass in front of sheep, once paddocks are grazed out, there has been very little regrowth coming back on swards.
To compound the grazing problems on-farm, sward quality was becoming a problem earlier this month, as lambs were leaving stemmy, headed out grass behind.
In an effort to tidy up swards and to provide high-quality grass in the next rotation, the grazing platform was topped about three weeks ago.
However, there has been no rain in the interim period and high temperatures mean topped and grazed swards have turned yellow from the combination of soil moisture deficit and heat stress.
All lambs born to mature ewes have been weaned, which has significantly eased the grazing pressure in recent weeks. However, ewe lambs still have a lamb at foot.
No fertiliser has been applied since June, although there was some watery slurry applied to swards early in July.
At the time of spreading, there was rain to wash slurry off grass and into soils. However, the benefit of this fertiliser application has not been realised.
Rain has been received this week and one bag/ac of nitrogen fertiliser was applied on Tuesday morning to reseeded swards and silage fields which have recently been grazed.
Silage making has changed on-farm and this has provided more grazing ground to carry sheep over the summer.
Rather than two distinct areas being cut twice for silage, first-cut is boosted by taking out as much surplus grazing as possible in June.
With a bigger first-cut, the second-cut area can be reduced and come into the grazing rotation, helping to stretch grass supplies in front of sheep.
Lambs have exhibited little sign of a worm burden, with animals having exceptionally clean fleeces at present.
The plan is to take some faecal egg counts to monitor worm levels, with a drench only given once worm levels rise above critical levels.
Roy and Marilyn’s farm is located in the west of the province and their 47ha grassland unit is classed as a
Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA).
Soils are heavier, with a high clay and peat content, which tends to hold moisture much better during a dry period.
As such, July has generally been a great month for grass growth. Grazing swards are measured weekly and grass growth on soils with a higher peat content has been typically between 70kg and 90kg DM/ha/day during the latter half of the month.
There are some fields with lighter soils and grass growth has struggled, with growth rates down at 15kg to 20kg DM/ha/day.
Fertiliser has been applied throughout July with a bag/acre of CAN spread after grazing, with nitrogen getting into soils.
Fields reseeded in the past two years have a high clover content and therefore, have not received any chemical fertiliser, but are performing well.
The big advantage the Mayers have seen with the dry weather is the high level of grass utilisation on-farm, with lambs able to clean paddocks out properly.
The dry weather has also provided a window for reseeding on some of the older, less productive swards.
On Monday, six acres were sown out with a multi-species sward by broadcasting seed. The field was rolled before and after broadcasting grass seed, having been ploughed in the past few days.
Soil analysis highlighted a pH of 5.5, so 2.5t/ac of lime was applied to the field and worked into the seedbed.
With heat in the ground and rain expected this week, the new sward should be quick to establish. Lambs will be used to graze the new sward tight, encouraging grass to tiller out and keep any weeds under control.
Second-cut silage was harvested last week and aftermath is already greening up with regrowth emerging. The farm has traditionally worked with a two-cut silage system, but this year there is a small acreage closed off for a third cut. Going for a three-cut system will help improve silage quality, with the best fodder being reserved for ewes in late gestation, limiting supplementary concentrate feeding in the run up to lambing.
As James runs an upland and hill unit, the weather so far this summer has been ideal for grazing. Along with good grass growth, ground is able to carry livestock much easier.
Sheep have been cleaning swards out much better, which is benefitting the quality of regrowth for the following rotation.
The upland and improved grazing areas of the farm, where there is a more defined grazing rotation, currently have more than two weeks of grass in front of lambs.
No fertiliser has been applied this month, with the exception of some slurry at the outset of July. Slurry was followed by rain at the time and nitrogen was washed into soils properly.
Grass growth got the benefit of the nitrogen and this ground is now being grazed by crossbred lambs, with a sward height around four inches of lush grass.
Samples were taken from younger grazing swards for feed analysis in mid-July and quality was excellent, with protein levels at 25.9% and 11.6 ME.
To improve grass utilisation on the better grazing areas, James has been running horned ewes, along with the dry crossbred ewes, after the lambs.
The lambs are getting priority grazing, cleaning off the best of the grass. The crossbred and horned ewes are tidying up the sward, cleaning off the headed out grass that is rejected by the lambs.
Despite the nature of the rejected grass, James maintains it is still better quality than the normal grazing available on the hard hill. So, the horned ewes will get a short-term performance boost from this change in grazing.
Horned ewes have been clipped, vaccinated and treated for flystrike over the past week while on the better grazing areas, but did return to the harder hill mid-week.
Any rejected grass left behind by the ewes has been topped to provide fresh regrowth for lambs next month.
There is 12ac of second-cut silage which should be ready to harvest in a week’s time. Silage will be baled and the aftermath will be used to drive lamb performance in the summer.
The programme will hold a virtual farm walk on Thursday 12 August, starting at 7.30pm. Host farmer for the evening will be Trevor Nixon, who runs a lowland flock at Bellanaleck, Co Fermanagh.
Trevor farms 85ha of grassland. This spring, there were 125 ewes lambed down from mid-March with ewes being a mix of Belclare and Texel breeding. The farm also carries a herd of dairy heifers, which are reared on contract.
Along with outlining the farm system, Trevor and programme adviser Senan White will discuss lamb performance from summer grazing.
Within the discussion, there will be a focus on parasite control. Trevor has been taking dung samples from lambs this year for faecal egg counting (FEC) to determine when lambs need dosing.
Log-in details will be provided closer to the event.