“It all depends on the season,” says Jeremy, who farms the 344-hectare unit on the South Downs, between Lewes and Brighton. “But we’ve seen a massive improvement in lamb performance when they’re grazed on high quality grassland.
He’s integrating this ‘temporary’ grass with combinable crops and roots. It’s a rotation that’s still ‘under development’, according to Jeremy. “We’re increasing the amount of grass in the rotation – this year we’ll direct drill 30ha of the Extra Lamb mixture into spring barley stubbles.
“We lamb 200 Texel x mule ewes in February, then the rest – 300 mainly Mule crosses – in April, and we look for a lambing percentage between 1.65% and 1.75%,” he adds. “If conditions are good, we can finish lambs in 12 to 14 weeks.”
Lambs are sold to a local butcher or through Hailsham market, from May onwards. By the end of July, Jeremy hopes all but about 80 are sold from the February lambers, leaving him free to crack on with the cereal harvest.
Until recently they’ve relied on grassland that was part of an environmental scheme. “We used this for rearing and finishing lambs. The problem here was that the leys were old and unproductive. Stocking rate was only five to seven lambs per hectare. And ewes looked poor on this old grass, so we relied on bought-in feed to boost their condition pre-tupping.”
While some of the farm remains as permanent pasture, Jeremy is growing more ‘temporary’ three- or four-year leys and using a seed mixture – Sinclair McGill Early Start or Extra Lamb. This combines high proportions of tetraploid perennial ryegrasses, a white clover blend and, in the case of Extra Lamb, Timothy. “I look at the catalogue then run my ideas past the specialists at our local merchants Bodle Brothers. We’ve a good relationship with them and they’ll advise us on choice of mixture.”
The new regime is providing Jeremy with early grass growth and plenty for ewes and lambs early in the spring. “And it’s persistent – it keeps growing through spring and summer. Depending on the season, we may take a cut of haylage, particularly off first-year leys, if there’s too much grass. These mixtures are giving us some flexibility.”
But what Jeremy’s really pleased with is the increased stocking rate that the more productive grassland offers. His stocking rate has leapt up to between 37 and 44 lambs and ewes per hectare. “Not only that, but they are reaching finishing weights of between 40kg and 44kg two weeks earlier, depending on the season, and they’re looking great. There’s no doubt that the higher protein and energy in this grass boosts their weight gain significantly.”
Jeremy opted to grow more grass when corn prices were low. “It seemed to make more sense – we could improve lamb productivity as opposed to struggling against falling corn prices and being open to the volatility of the cereal market. Grass became the third crop in our rotation.”
A decent autumn sees the grass start to grow and by late February Jeremy looks to graze the newly-sown leys.
“We’ve always spent time and money on grassland, but we’ve now moved it up a level and are treating it more as a crop. The extra reseeding has added to our costs, but these have been far exceeded by the feed value and yield of the grass.”
The farm still has around 120 hectares of permanent pasture – some of it is gorse land on the Downs – which is used for the ewes after weaning and before they move on to the roots.
Around 40 hectares of stubble turnips and forage rape are drilled after winter barley harvest and fed to the ewes during the winter. This land is then drilled with spring barely.
“We’ve been roots and rape for five years and this works well for the ewes. While ewes still get some concentrates in the lead up to lambing, we now feed far less. The combination of the root crops and better grass makes us far less reliant on bought in feeds.” Both, Jeremy believes, have a place in the rotation on this unit.
BOX – LAMBS OFF GRASS
Growing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ quality grass costs the same, according to Sinclair McGill’s Ian Misselbrook. “So why not be discerning about the mixture and grow a proven mixture suited to the purpose and with good feed qualities.”
When it comes to intensive lamb rearing systems, an early grass ley is needed that will persist through the season and will offer a high feed value for growing lambs and to support ewes.
“Select a mixture with early- and mid-season perennial ryegrasses,” says Mr Misselbrook. “This will spread the growth pattern. As one variety passes its peak, another takes over. Likewise, Timothy grows in early spring, before the ryegrasses, and then has another growth surge in mid-summer, when ryegrasses slow down.”
He also encourages farmers to use a mixture with white clover blends that, as a legume, has nitrogen-fixing abilities. White clover also has a high feed value and contributes significantly to liveweight gain. “Clovers are the single most important component of a mixture when it comes to liveweight gain in lambs,” he adds.
“While some farmers may balk at the cost of reseeding – estimated at £620/ha taking account of cultivations, seed, fertiliser, labour and machinery – a regular programme is good practice. These costs may be lower where less cultivations are needed.
“Trials have shown that yields from a 10-year-old ley will be 50% lower than those from a newly sown ley and there will be a significant drop in feed value from the older ley. A reseed will pay for itself in four or five years in both yield and feed value. And it also gives farmers the opportunity to introduce improved seed mixtures.”