The escalation in fertiliser prices pushing quotes upwards of €1,000/t and as high as €1,200/t, along with concentrate costs remaining on an upward trajectory, means that farmers need all options at their disposal to try and keep costs in check and underpin animal performance.
At last week’s Teagasc farm walk held on the farm of PJ Finnerty, Brideswell, Co Roscommon, Teagasc sheep specialist Damian Costello told farmers: “You can grow more grass with wire.”
Damian was referring to the potential benefits attainable from improving grazing infrastructure and grassland management.
He said that the ideal scenario was implementing a paddock or rotational grazing system, outlining a number of benefits.
Having more paddocks available is viewed as critical in delivering greater flexibility and control across the grazing season. For example, during periods of peak growth surplus grass can be taken out of the grazing rotation, thereby helping to maintain quality while also providing scope to harvest top-quality forage.
Optimally aligning the size of paddocks to suit grazing groups offers the potential for a shorter residency period. This, in turn, will reduce sward recovery times and increase the quantity of grass grown. According to Damian, grass utilisation and sward quality will also be greatly enhanced.
Setting up paddocks
In terms of setting up a paddock grazing system, an example using a 100-ewe flock was outlined. The optimum grazing infrastructure outlined here is at least five grazing divisions of 2ha (five acres) in size which can be temporarily split as required to give scope for 10 grazing divisions.
Damian told farmers that the ideal residency period in paddocks is two to three days, with sheep entering paddocks during the main grazing season at pre-grazing sward heights of 7cm to 9cm or covers of 1,200kg to 1,500kg DM/ha.
Sheep should be removed from paddocks once grazed down to 4cm to 4.5cm. The fact that sheep spend less time grazing lower covers should sustain higher levels of lamb performance.
Posts and sheep wire divisions are usually most suitable where large areas are being divided with the intention of these being left as permanent divisions.
However, given the increase in the price of materials and cashflow required to address the surge in other input costs, undertaking significant fencing jobs in 2022 is not likely to be a palatable proposition.
Damian said: “I am not disregarding permanent fencing but at a cost of €6 to €8 per metre when completed by a contractor and to grant spec running a few strategic lines of electric wire and maybe water piping on top of the land may suit better for the year that’s in it.”
The cost of erecting a temporary fence using PVC posts and timber posts at strategic locations in contrast to permanent fencing was highlighted as a fraction of the cost at about €1.30/m to €1.50/m.
“We have found revisiting farms that have put in place such fencing [three to four strands of electrified wire and a combination of PVC/pigtail posts and timber stakes] that many end up leaving it in situ and come back and reinforce any areas where there is stress on the fence or where there is a higher risk of sheep breaching it.
“The added benefit of these [fences] is that you can see how they work and make changes to enhance movement of sheep or tailor paddock size.”
Damian advises farmers to start off by grazing ewes and lambs in a smaller area or in an area where there is a more robust fence in place to get them accustomed to the new setup.
The fence is going to be challenged by sheep trying to get through the fence rather than over it.
As such, it is recommended to start with four strands of wire at a height of 20cm, 30cm, 50cm and 80cm above ground level.
Once sheep get accustomed to the fence, one of the bottom strands of wire can be removed, with the wire at a height of 20cm above ground level usually removed.
It is also critical that the voltage running through the fence is adequate.
“Not having a good enough voltage in the fence at the start is one of the main reasons for temporary fencing failing to hold sheep. Be aware of the capacity of the fence and remember that each strand needs to be counted where calculating the length of the fence; 200m of a four-strand fence is 800m length of fencing.”
Mains fencing works best but systems can still work with a good battery fencer. Again, it is important that the battery is of sufficient charge and the fence can provide the necessary voltage.
Having cut-out switches where the voltage can be concentrated on the area being grazed works excellently in boosting the voltage and these can be purchased at a price of €15 to €20.
In terms of linking current from one strand to another, Damian advises to do this at the start of the fence where dealing with polywire.
This is because there can often be some damage over time caused by linking wires. If this occurs at the start of the roll, it is only a matter of snipping of the damaged ends while if it occurs in the middle of the roll it will be much harder to fix.
Fence or wire reels allow for much better control of polywire allowing for quicker rollout and collection and importantly preventing tangling of the wire.
There is a big variation in cost starting from €15 upwards for small reels suitable for 200m of polywire to anywhere from €40 to €80 for larger and stronger geared reels suitable for holding 500m of wire.
There are a number of additional components that can improve the labour efficiency of erecting temporary fencing.
Reel posts such as that shown in the photo provide a mechanism for larger reels to be held in place quickly while insulating handles allow wire to be linked quickly to existing fencing such as sheep wire.
Damian said that there is some evidence to show that land grazed in a set stocked manner is only reaching 50% to 60% of its potential.
Teagasc adviser James Kelly encouraged farmers to try and avail of the potential gains attainable from rotational grazing.
“Even if you do not go fully down the road of rotational grazing there are still big benefits that can be achieved from splitting fields permanently or temporarily.
“Try one bigger area to start with, split it in to two and see how it goes.
“You will be amazed with how the quality of pasture improves over the next three years.
“Moving from a system where stock are in the same field for weeks to where fresh grass can be offered even every week to two weeks will bring added benefits with each change that is made.”
PJ Finnerty has utilised a paddock grazing system for some time. The 60ha farm is in three divisions and overall is split in to about 40 permanent divisions.
PJ uses a combination of tailoring the size of grazing groups to suit different areas and temporary divisions to keep a handle on grass growth rates and supplies as they fluctuate over the season.
On the grazing block where the walk was held, a batch of 120 ewes and their lambs were grazing where a batch of 20 two-year-old heifers normally run. This is running at about 15 head so far this year, with a few extra heifers drafted for sale and not yet replaced.
This grazing group are grazed across larger paddocks while a smaller batch of 80 ewes and their lambs are rotationally grazed across smaller paddocks.
PJ finds that the rotational grazing system and focus on grass budgeting and management provides the foundation for running at a high stocking rate with numbers generally in the region of 550 ewes (including 130 yearling hoggets that lamb) and their lambs along with 100 heifers over the main grazing season.
When questioned on the potential for finishing lambs off grass, he says that it is challenging to draft lambs off grass alone when operating at such a high stocking rate.
“Lambs can be killed off grass but at the stocking rate I am at now I am not able to kill off grass alone without being disappointed in the kill out. It can be done but it depends on the grazing setup.
“I have a block of about 40 acres in Knockcroghery where 90 ewes and their lambs are run. There is not as much pressure on numbers here as it suits with handling and a few other things and I can finish lambs off grass there.
“I have held lambs until 50kg liveweight in the past on the other blocks and still can’t get a level of finish or kill-out I am happy with. When lambs are weaned, I will group lambs in finishing groups with lambs over 38kg run on aftergrass swards and fed 300g concentrates [daily] in troughs.
“It is not a big volume of meal and the overall level fed is small but to me it makes a big difference in slaughter performance and I am never disappointed for doing it.”
PJ also attributes good grass growth to maintaining soil fertility within the optimum ranges and strategic use of farm yard manure.
He has purchased mainly urea fertiliser this year and will go with the approach of applying fertiliser as often but at smaller quantities.