Grass remains the priority feed for sheep

Grass can account for 95% of breeding ewes’ total dietary needs, according to AgriSearch’s Dr. Elizabeth Earle.

“High-quality grass contains up to 20% Crude Protein and has a Metabolic Energy value of 11 MJ/kg of Dry Matter,” she said.

Earle was one of the speakers at the series of technical seminars, hosted as part of the recent Sheep NI event in Ballymena.

She added:

Grass costs between 6p and 7p per kilo of dry matter to produce. The equivalent costs associated with silage and concentrates are 13p and 27p respectively.”

Earle also pointed out that lamb can be produced almost entirely from grazed grass, adding: “This gives flock owners in Northern Ireland a very competitive production-based and marketing advantage.

“Grazing trails have shown that it is possible to produce up to 14t of grass dry matter per ha on sheep farms. Up to 90% of this can be utilised on the back of either grazing per visits per sward per year.”

“To achieve this level of performance requires swards to have a 21-day rest interval between grazings.

This is central to the factor of three rule: Three days’ grazing, three weeks’ rest and only grazing grass when it has three leaves fully extended.”

She continued: “Ewes and lambs should be introduced to paddocks, which have grass covers in the region of 2,700 kilos of dry matter per hectare. This is equivalent to swards that are between 8-10cm in height.

“The stock should be moved on when the covers have been reduced to 1,700kg.”

The AgriSearch representative highlighted the key role which the GrassCheck service is now playing within Northern Ireland’s ruminant sectors. She commented:

It is providing real-time data on grass growth and quality from 48 commercial beef, dairy and sheep farms.”

Operated by AgriSearch and AFBI, the GrassChecck project monitors weekly grass growth and quality. It provides seven and 14-day grass growth rate forecasts to support farmers in managing pasture surpluses and deficits throughout the growing season.

Each of the farmers involved has been equipped with the latest GPS rising plate-meters to measure grass covers. On-farm grass growth and quality are measured on a weekly and fortnightly basis, respectively.

In addition, 24 weather stations have been deployed on these pilot farms to record a wide range of meteorological data from across Northern Ireland.

“This cutting-edge technology is being used to provide farmers with up-to-date information of grass growing conditions and grass quality in their locality to help them make the most of this valuable resource,” Earle concluded.