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Reducing ewe wintering costs

Eamonn Patten, Teagasc Drystock Advisor looks at extended grazing as an alternative to housing ewes in winter and outlines some basic rules to make it work. Good fencing is a must and alternative forages may also be considered with good planning.

The wintering of any animal is a major cost eating into the overall profitability of an enterprise and the suckler cow gets poor press for such expense but what is the position with wintering the ewe? Housing is the most obvious cost and feeding requirements associated with it. Moderate capital costs alone for a sheep shed could vary from €274-€408 per ewe excluding vat and grant. A typical housing period for an average-stocked sheep farm could be 100 days, but in recent times, some farmers are minimising the housing period because of costs like straw and labour requirement. There is also a trend towards reducing the housing period from an environmental viewpoint. The problem that can occur is a hidden cost in lost grass production. How can we hit a balance?

Extended Grazing

Making maximum use of ground closed in Autumn as a source of winter feed for sheep will reduce overall cost provided we do not overly restrict the potential to grow grass the following Spring. This is referred to as extended grazing and is a practice by which farmers avail of a build-up of grass, on their own farm or on another holding. This can be a good option for both farms. The farmer with stock (sheep owner) is getting a cheaper supply of forage and the receiving farmer is getting potentially excessively heavy covers grazed to allow better growth rates and better quality swards the following Spring.

The best way to approach this is to divide the farm into two areas; one for winter grazing and one for Spring Grass. There are some basic rules for it to work.

1. Need to have planned Autumn/Winter grazing plan. 

2. Ensure that paddocks for Spring Grass are closed in time and not regrazed.

3. The commencement date for grazing spring grass needs to be factored in from the start.

4. Have 80% of farm closed on a phased basis and available to grow spring grass— i. e. using less than 20% for extended grazing that is not required for spring grass.

5. Ensure sufficient ground is closed in time (Autumn) for the build-up of grass for winter grazing

6. Rationing out the feed supply is vital and utilisation rates are variable – heavily weather dependent

7. Depending on type of holdings and stock types there may be some animal movement compliance rules to observe.

Even on lower stocked farms if utilising extended grazing into the winter it would again be advantageous to stagger the closing dates of the paddocks as it would lead to a better Spring sward and less pressure in Autumn provided you minimise the number of grazing groups. Avoid excessively heavy covers, as there will be poor utilisation. The feed value can be surprisingly good even on the ‘heavyish’ covers especially when compared to feeding silage.  For larger areas, electric fencing will give better utilisation - if sheep are trained to a fence. Sheep will need training for electric fencing if this is required. Where possible aim to divide the field along the long side. This reduces competition and poaching in adverse conditions and gives rise to better grass utilisation.  Back fencing will speed up grass recovery on the larger areas. Unfortunately a bit more work!

Considering a forage crop alternative? Bear in mind..

  • Dry fields, avoiding excessive slopes – especially if grazing with ewes in late pregnancy
  • Which fields could be identified for reseeding the following season?
  • Proximity of forage area to lambing location/shed?
  • Is access required for supplementary feeding?

On temporary/rented grazing ground be mindful of:

  • Duration of grazing – Exit date and what’s agreed
  • Water Supply /Mains power
  • Proximity to yard or handling unit

One of the biggest management factors is the quality of fencing which we all know needs to be very good to keep the peace!