Droughts are expected to become more frequent, which will pose a problem for herders who depend on grazing in the summer.
Without intervention, this could lead to poor growth and physical condition, as well as expensive bills for purchased feed.
Below, Liz Genever, Independent Cattle and Sheep Consultant, shares her top tips for managing both livestock and pasture to limit the impact of drier weather.
See also: How the Cheshire suckler farm adapted to survive the drought
1. Take an ‘inventory’
Reducing the number of livestock can ease the pressure on grazing if it is already insufficient.
This means getting rid of any “passengers”, such as cull cows, or moving animals off the farm as soon as possible.
2. Make a diet plan
This can be done three to four months in advance to predict likely grass cover and plan accordingly.
The three key pieces of information needed to generate this plan are the number of animals on the farm, the grass growth forecast, based on previous performance and weather conditions to date, and if/what supplements are given.
There is a tool on AHDB website to help growers calculate this and the forecast can be used to adapt management decisions in advance.
3. Regularly measure grass availability and allocate accordingly
Although a feed plan will provide useful predictions of grazing cover availability, it is still important to measure grass cover and evaluate the plan in real time.
This means walking the fields regularly and using a plate meter or a stick to measure the height of the grass in a field.
Grazing and resting paddocks at the right time will aid in better grass utilization and grass recovery.
This year was a good example of why this is so important, says Ms. Genever, who worked with some clients every two weeks to assess and adjust their plans, depending on the availability of weed.
This may mean moving sheep off the farm, or bringing them back if the outlook changes, or adjusting pasture rotation.
It can also be helpful to research locally if there are foods available to buy or graze, such as cover crops, she says.
4. Consider other grazing options
Grasslands dominated by ryegrass are known for their rapid growth, however, in the absence of rain, they are the first to close.
Grasslands often include more drought-tolerant species, which can provide a useful alternative grazing option when the grass stops growing.
The best individual species to include in mixes will depend on the farm, but chicory is a very tolerant and resilient species.
Plantain also helps build drought resistance, and legumes are beneficial from a nitrogen-fixing perspective, which can help keep lawns growing in drier conditions.
Correct establishment is fundamental to the success of these leys and Ms Genever says they should simply be ‘scraped’ into the ground – rather than drilled deep.
The way grass meadows are grazed also affects turf longevity and management can be a challenge. Plant-based pastures often require a different mindset when it comes to grazing.
For example, a minimum rest period of 40 days is recommended between rotations. This compares to a 15-day rest period during peak ryegrass growth.
5. Don’t overlook the importance of soil nutrient status
When rain comes, the state of soil nutrients can greatly affect grass growth, especially phosphorus (P). Soil testing will help identify if there are deficits in pH, P, potassium and magnesium.
Correcting them before a new season, with an application of lime or nutrients, will help improve growth.
Grass mixtures – especially legumes – have a high phosphorus and sulfur requirement, so it’s important to think about how to feed them to sustain the turf.
Liz Genever was speaking at a recent AHDB event hosted by Chestnut Farm, Lincolnshire
Case study: Chris and Louise Elkington, Lincolnshire
At Chestnut Farm, near Grantham, sheep farmers Chris and Louise Elkington are putting measures in place to protect them from the risk of further droughts.
The farm houses 450 ewes who are raised on 125 ha (309 acres) of permanent pasture and short-term temporary pasture, which is rotationally grazed.
The ewes are divided into two flocks, one lambing indoors in February and the other outdoors in April.
This is to facilitate a steady flow of lambs for the couple’s butchery business, Gelston Lamb, which was set up in 2014 to allow them to sell directly to consumers.
Their objective is to pitch up and finish everything on the grass. But already located in a drier part of the county – averaging 610mm of rainfall a year – the added pressure of drought this season has made achieving that target a real challenge, says Mr Elkington, a strategic farmer from the AHDB.
“With a fairly dry spring, we didn’t get the growth we wanted to start with, and [grass growth] struggled all year.
“We weaned early and made the decision to put the ewes in sacrifice fields and feed them silage.
“They were where we wanted them with a body condition score, and we felt we couldn’t afford to let them back down.”
With lambs needed for slaughter, selling cattle to reduce grazing pressure is not a viable option. Instead, Mr. Elkington is exploring alternative grazing options to grass.
This has included herbal meadows and the establishment of an area as a GS4 legume and grass rich lawn, as part of the campaign’s stewardship programme.
The mix he planted includes 16 species: late and intermediate perennial ryegrass, red clover, sainfoin, timothy, meadow fescue, tall fescue, burnet, chicory, plantain, alsike clover, cocksfoot, birdsfoot trefoil, parsley of sheep, soft yellow flower clover and yarrow.
Mr Elkington says these species – particularly chicory – are more resilient in times of drought, allowing him to graze the sheep longer.
There is also the added benefit of GS4 payment. The current value is £358/ha (£145/acre).
“The hope is that it will provide us with green cover in the months when we have minimal rainfall.
“They [the herbal leys] will be divided and rotate grazed to give them a sufficient resting period, but hopefully this will tick the boxes for keeping something to eat during dry spells.