Top tips: Best-practice grassland management for sheep farmers

Efficient grassland management is vital for sheep farmers at this time of year, according to Teagasc Research Officer, Philip Creighton.

The key thing at the moment, Creighton stressed, is to keep on top of grass covers and to keep things under control.

“We are after coming out of a period of slow growth with not as much rain and, then, there has been an explosion of growth,” Creighton said.

“Three weeks ago there was growth of 40kg of DM (Dry Matter) per day. Last week this has shot up to 90kg DM per day.”

The impact of this, Creighton says, is evident with farmers going from being on top of everything, getting 1,200kg covers grazed, to cover becoming too strong ahead of their current grazing.

“It is very important to be walking the farm consistently and knowing what is ahead,” Creighton highlighted.

“Ideally sheep farmers should be measuring; with measuring you have a more accurate picture of what’s going on. Like the old saying goes: ‘What you can measure, you can manage’. With more detailed information, you can make better decisions.

“Where grass is getting too strong, try to take out paddocks for silage,” Creighton elaborated, noting that when analysing the grass wedge, the target is to have 150-200kg DM per livestock unit per day, in the range of planning 10-15 days ahead. Anything above this is surplus grass.

Quality will suffer if grass gets too strong – the leaf is the good part of the grass, not the stem. If you don’t keep on top of it, it can be hard to graze swards out and quality will drop – maybe not now but next time you graze it.

“There are a couple of options when grass gets too strong. You can take out paddocks for baling as silage, which will be welcome during the winter months, or you can graze off the paddock as best you can, and then allocate the paddock for taking out as silage the next time around; that’s another way to ‘reset’ the quality if you like,” Creighton said.

Another option is some strategic use of the topper if it is getting too strong, but this shouldn’t have to be used too much.

Most people have a good idea of how long grazing will take in a paddock from experience, Creighton said. However, sometimes fields are too big, making paddock divisions an important aspect.

Giving an example of good paddock management, Creighton said that for 100 ewes rearing lambs, a 2ha paddock should be divided in two with an electric fence, giving the sheep three days on either side of the division. At the moment, ewes have a requirement each of 4kg DM per day for themselves and to rear their lambs.

With a cover of 1,200kg DM/ha – or grass length of 7-7.5cm – this would mean that there would be 2,400kg DM on the 2ha paddock. This is six days’ worth of grazing for 100 sheep.

The benefits of this system are two-fold; animal performance is maintained while grass production is enhanced. The sheep are getting regular access to good, leafy grass (if grass is strong, they might get five or five-and-a-half days of good grazing out of the six) while the grass is taken out at the right time before stemming and seeding.

In conclusion, the key thing Creighton says is knowing what grass is on the farm and not being afraid to take action if grass is getting too strong.