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How to avoid meal feeding ewes after lambing


Edward Egan, Meath Teagasc advisor, sums up the points made by 2020 Sheep Grassland Farmer of the Year Peter McGuinness, as he outlines some of the key steps he takes during the course of the year to ensure he has enough grass in March & April to avoid meal feeding mature ewes after lambing.

Nearly 800 ewes were put to the ram. Lambing starts on the 10th of March. The 3 main benefits to not having to meal feed ewes after lambing are:

  1. Meal cost per ewe are reduced.
  2. The job of meal feeding ewes is eliminated.
  3. Ewes & lambs are much more settled. Ewes are set-stocked for lambing on grass covers of 900-1200kg DM per ha. This encourages the ewes to stay spread out in the field during & after lambing. 

Grass

The farms sheep system is built around making the best use of labour & grass. Peter measures his grass weekly from early February to closing up in late December. This allows him to see what grass he has ahead & to take action early.

Key to outdoor lambing

Peter says there are 4 things that you must carefully plan when lambing outdoors.

  1. You must have good grass covers.
  2. You must have good labour.
  3. You must have the right equipment.
  4. You must be flexible. 

Compact breeding & lambing

Lambing is compacted by only having a 5 week breeding season. The downside to this is a barren rate of 5.5%. The upside is lambing is short & intense. About 90% of the mature ewes will lamb in the first 3 weeks. Labour is organised to focus on this busy period. Compact lambing results in an even batch of lambs for the year.   

Lamb drafting pattern

An important step in the Journey to having enough grass in March & April is to have as few lambs as possible on this farm from August onwards, so that lambs are not competing with ewes for autumn grass. If you have 3-4 ewes plus per acre then building grass covers from August to carry ewes into the autumn & winter is much easier to do when you have fewer lambs around. Last year 94% of the factory lambs were finished by the end of October. The rest were sold as stores in October. 

Lambing date

The date lambing starts is seen as one of the most important decisions on this farm. The 10th of March was picked on this farm for 3 main reasons;

  1. Hopefully the worst of wintery weather is over.
  2. The start of lambing coincides with the annual increase in grass growth.
  3. Allows a high % of lambs to be killed off grass before the end of September. 

Grass cover at lambing

The average grass cover on the 10th of March was 1045kg DM/ha. Peters says its better looking at it, than looking for it. Having a surplus of grass ahead at this time is a buffer in case of a cold March & April, which we are getting at the moment. Peter is measuring grass weekly so he can react quickly to a surge in grass growth that you’d expect in April. If grass gets ahead of him in April he can take paddocks out for silage. 

Early Nitrogen

Peter spread 30 units of protected urea per acre in the first week of March over the entire grassland area. Because he has good grass covers at the time of spreading he is confident of a response to this early Nitrogen. 

Group sizes

Once lambs are about 5 weeks old they will be put into 3 groups: 2 groups each with 300 ewes & their lambs and then a 3rd group containing the rest. Large groups means more grazing power. This will allow paddocks to be split, rotated & grazed out more quickly.   

First cut silage

In 2020 the 1st cut of silage was taken in the 3rd week of May. Cutting early not only produces better quality silage but it allowed lambs to be weaned on the 20th June on to top quality aftergrass. After weaning lambs get the first grazing in each paddock, followed by thin ewes, with fatter ewes been used to clean out paddocks.   

Temporary fences

Temporary fences are used to split grass fields during the summer & autumn. 

Closing paddocks

Peter started closing paddocks from the 20th October. Paddocks are grazed down to 3.5-4cm to ensure good quality regrowths are available in March & April.

See what Peter McGuinness, 2020 Sheep Grassland Farmer of the Year, has to say in this video below

Find more on the 2020 Grassland Farmer of the Year farmers here

Find out more about all aspects of Sheep Production here