With lambing drawing to an end, thoughts should be turning to grazing ewes and lambs over the year ahead.
Higher fertiliser prices should refocus the mind on grassland management, so that grass growth and livestock performance is maximised.
When it comes to grazing systems, there are merits and drawbacks to every option.
It comes down to getting the right system that suits your flock, land, management skills, time and budget.
Rotational grazing will grow more grass over the season compared with a set-stocking system. It can also provide higher-quality swards that boost lamb growth rates.
But there are some steps that can be taken in set-stocking systems that will also improve grass quality and lamb performance. Equally, there are improvements that can be made to rotational grazing systems.
Outlined are some steps that will help get the most from grass over the grazing season.
Some farmers prefer set stocking for a number of reasons. These include land rented on a conacre arrangement, limited time for moving stock due to off-farm employment and heavily fragmented land blocks with limited stock carrying capacity.
Whatever the reason, it is still possible to review how sheep are grazed in a set stocking system and make some tweaks.
Split a field in two
The first step is simply splitting a field in two using temporary electric wire and a battery unit. The division should ideally be placed so sheep can access the water trough from either grazing allocation.
Opt for plastic posts and run three or four, strands of wire to hold sheep back. A fencer unit with at least a 12V battery is recommended.
Try and work it so that sheep are moved on the same day every week
The aim should be to move cattle back and forth between the two grazing divisions.
Try and work it so that sheep are moved on the same day every week. For example, move sheep every Saturday.
In the case where two fields are side by side, the same method can be followed. Splitting both fields in two would give four grazing divisions.
The increased grazing pressure on each division will improve the sward cleanout. This will help to increase grass quality and give a slightly longer rest interval for regrowth.
Topping fields in thirds
An alternative option for set-stocking systems is to top a field in stages. For example, take a 10ac grazing field carrying sheep only.
Once grass starts to head out in June, go in and top one-third of the field.
Ideally, use a disc mower to cut the sward as low as possible.
After 10 to 14 days, top the next third of the field and the final third after the same time interval.
The purpose of topping is to have fresh grass coming back in the field during June and July. Topping is meant to replicate grazing the sward tight to the ground, as would be the case with a rotational paddock setup.
This means regrowth is much more staggered and easier to control compared to fresh regrowth coming back across the whole field at the same time.
As the field is topped in sections, there is still two-thirds of the field with a good cover of grass. If there is a dry period and regrowth slows, there is still grass in the field. Hold off on topping until rain returns.
Under good management, rotational grazing will improve grass growth and sward quality. This can deliver performance benefits in terms of better milking ability in ewes and higher liveweight gain in lambs.
For farmers considering rotational grazing for the first time, outlined are some tips, several of which have been put into practice on the NI Sheep Programme farms during the past three years.
1 Always start small
Do not be too ambitious when setting up a grazing rotation for the first time. Managing grass and budgeting how long covers will last is a skill that takes time to develop.
Start out with a small area of the farm and build from there. This could be 15 to 20 acres at most in year one.
Plenty of farmers have tried too much too soon with rotational grazing and in a wet year, or during a drought, this puts far too much pressure on the system and the paddocks are abandoned.
Once confidence and management skills grow, the area being rotationally grazed can be increased gradually.
2 Start with bigger paddocks
Do not get too hung up on paddock size. This can be determined once the system beds in and the pinch points for grass growth during the season become evident.
Sheep will need a bigger grazing area in April compared to June as there will be a difference in grass growth.
Grazing areas will need to be increased again in autumn as grass growth will be tailing off.
The most important thing is to be flexible with paddock size. Bigger paddocks that can be sub-divided during summer are better than too many small paddocks that cannot meet grazing demand.
Once you gain confidence and have seen how the rotation works over the year, you can then make more permanent divisions to alter paddock size.
3 How many paddocks are needed?
At the outset, aim to have around eight paddocks per grazing group. These can be fields in their own right, or a combination of small and larger fields split in two.
4 How often should sheep be moved?
Ideally, move sheep every three to four days. This gives two allocations of fresh grass every week. With eight paddocks, this means a rest interval of three weeks between each grazing.
If time is limited due to other commitments or off-farm employment, can stock be moved to fresh grass once per week?
In this case, paddocks will need to be larger to provide enough grass in every allocation. Therefore, three to four grazing divisions will be required to give an adequate rest period for regrowth.
5 Water provision
Providing drinking water is always a problem when setting up a rotational system. At the start, try to split fields based on the location of drinking troughs.
Once the rotation is up and running, it will be easier to see the best place for relocating existing troughs and where to position new, additional troughs.
Running water pipe over the ground, attached to a plastic trough, means it is possible to move drinking water from paddock to paddock and greatly reduces setup costs.
6 Fencing materials
Start with plastic posts and temporary electric wire on reels. They are quick to erect and can be moved to increase, or reduce, the paddock size as necessary.
To hold back sheep, at least three strands of electric wire will be required with four strands an even better option.
Wooden fence posts can be used as strainers and normally positioned were the temporary wire runs to the field’s natural boundary.
To simplify moving sheep between paddocks in the same field, some farmers will use sheep hurdles attached to these strainer posts.
7 Mains or battery power
Mains electric is the best option for controlling livestock, but is not always an option.
Battery fencers are a good alternative, but choose a unit with a solar panel to extend battery life.
Choose a unit with a 12V charge as the sheep’s fleece can dampen the shock and animals will be more inclined to break through fences when grass covers are low.
8 Fertiliser applications
Once fields are split into smaller grazing allocations, spreading nitrogen on every paddock once stock are removed is not practical. Most farmers will go with one or two blanket nitrogen applications during the summer period as necessary.
The advantage of using plastic posts for dividing fields, rather than a permanent fencing, is that the temporary fence can be moved or the wire lowered to allow the tractor move between paddocks.