Approximately 90% of the soil samples taken on sheep farms have an imbalance in terms of their phosphate, potash and lime levels, according to Teagasc research scientist Dr Philip Creighton.

“As a consequence, the grass growth obtained on sheep farms is below sub optimal levels, unless the required balancing fertilisation programme is followed,” he said.

The Athenry-based specialist was speaking at the Teagasc Annual Sheep Conference in Trim, where he said that grazed grass is the cheapest feed that can be made available to ewes and lambs.

“It is possible to produce grass on Irish farms at a cost of €75/t of dry matter,” he said.

“Silage production costs are approximately twice this value with concentrates commanding a cost equivalent to four times that of the grazed grass production figure.”

Creighton went on to say that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to finish lambs on grass alone, even at flock stocking rates of 12 ewes/Ha.

“Our work at Athenry has confirmed the absolute importance of maximising grass utilisation levels,” he said.

“This can be achieved by increasing farm stocking rate levels and, in some cases, enhancing ewe prolificacy.”

The implementation of leader: follower grazing systems post weaning is crucial in terms of improving grass utilisation levels on sheep farms, according to Creighton.

“In these instances the lambs will always have initial access to the high quality grazed swards with the ewes cleaning up behind,” he said.

“The paddock system required can be easily created through the use of temporary electric fencing. This approach will also allow flockowners to take out paddocks not required for grazing as silage. However, it is imperative that the baled forage made in this way is of optimal quality.”

Creighton’s ongoing Teagasc research at Athenry has confirmed the feasibility of increasing flock stocking rates up to 12, and possibly, 14 ewes/ha.

“But, in many ways, these figures are irrelevant,” he said.

“Each farm is different. And the challenge facing individual flockowners is that of knowing what the potential of their enterprise is and then managing it accordingly.”