Winter starts on the 1st of February

The financial and productive performance of sheep and beef (and deer) farms is very dependent on how well we can capitalise on the ‘cheap’ high quality grass that grows in spring.

For breeding farms in particular, this in turn depends on how well the farm comes through winter. When pasture covers are in good shape, with enough leaf to intercept the sun that comes with the lengthening days, we can more easily feed lactating ewes and cows to appetite, maximise their milk production, and let those lambs and calves really express their genetic potential for growth.

When our breeding stock make it to lambing and calving in good body condition they have more reserves to throw into milk production on cold wet days where they need more of their feed intake just to keep warm, or if they end up in a paddock where covers get a bit shorter than we planned.

A hind that fawns in body condition score (BCS) 4 (1-5 scale) can maintain and buffer her lactation for 4-6 weeks longer than a light hind when feed becomes limiting in a dry summer. This can have a massive impact on fawn weaning weights.

Ewes that lamb at body condition scores of under 2.5 have nearly twice the loss rate than ewes that lamb at BCS 2.5 and above; they also wean less lambs per ewe and their lambs are at least 1kg lighter than lambs reared by better conditioned ewes.

So the goal is to get our breeding stock through winter with good condition on their backs, and the grass cover on the farm in a place where existing pasture cover + daily pasture growth rates can easily meet the massive upswing in feed demand that starts in the last few weeks before lambing.

The energy demands of twin and triplet bearing ewes as good as double over the last 3-4 weeks prior to lambing with the exponential growth of the foetuses at this time, plus the development of the udder and production of colostrum. 

The system should be set up to meet this increasing demand, often through a combination of some feed pushed through from early winter, plus pasture growth. Timing of lambing and calving to ‘ride’ the pasture growth curve make meeting this demand so much easier. Starting winter with good grass covers is also critical. A wedge of feed to ration out as we progress through the winter in the face of declining pasture growth rates makes it more likely that breeding stock will carry their condition through to lambing/calving.

Pasture cover on 1st May is an important indicator of how well a farm is going to get through the winter, and what feed will be available to late-pregnant and lambing ewes in spring. The target will vary for individual farms, depending on livestock system, forage system and lambing date. However aiming low is a cop-out – dairy farmers know a thing or two about maximising production in spring, and you never hear them suggesting a farm cover of under 2000kgDM/ha on May 1st.  

In our practice area, winter pasture growth rates are never enough to exceed animal demand on a month-by-month basis, and pasture covers will always drop over winter. Starting winter with good grass covers makes it far more likely you’ll get through winter with pastures that can meet the demands of high performance in spring.

From the start of February there are 89 days till the ‘magic date’ of 1st May. Now is the time to take stock of your feed situation and stock body condition, to make a plan that can get the farm through to that point with the right feed levels to set up for a great spring.

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