Crop grazing lifts lambing rate

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In northern Victoria grazing crops are filling the feed gap without affecting crop yields

Photo of shorn sheep

Crop grazing lifted lambing percentage by 10 per cent without any significant impact on grain yield or quality.

PHOTO: Birchip Cropping Group

Grazing their pregnant ewes on crops is one of the most profitable decisions Raywood, Victoria, farmers Tim and Jodie Demeo have made.

Crop grazing lifted lambing percentage by 10% without any significant impact on grain yield or quality.

The Demeos, who have been part of the Grain & Graze program almost since its inception, say grazing crops has helped increase their lambing percentage and enabled them to expand their farm business.

They run 1500 crossbred ewes for second-cross lamb production and grow wheat, barley, oats, lucerne and vetch with an average annual rainfall of 450 millimetres.

Photo of man smiling with cap on

Raywood, Victoria, mixed farmer Tim Demeo is very happy with his decision to graze his pregnant ewes on crops as lambing percentages have risen by about 10 per cent with no impact on grain yield or quality.

PHOTO: Birchip Cropping Group

The cropping system follows a seven-year rotation of wheat, barley, canola, wheat, barley, vetch (hay), oats (hay) and vetch undersown with lucerne and subclover. 

Typically, sowing begins on 20 April (vetch and canola) and finishes on 20 May.

Barley is the first cereal sown because it produces more biomass for pregnant ewes to graze after shearing in mid June. By then, crops are usually well established and the sheep are hungry.

The benefits

Winter cereal crops provide pregnant ewes with essential nutrition before and following lambing while reducing the need to manage crop residues.

Since implementing grazing crops, the Demeos’ lambing percentages have risen by about 10 per cent, with no significant change to crop yields or quality.

“We have harvested every crop that has been grazed so far, which means we’ve had two bites at the cherry,” Tim says.

“It’s dollars for jam.”

Livestock grazing

In conjunction with grazing crops, Tim operates a drift lambing system. Ewes lambed within the past 24 hours are left in the paddock while the rest of the mob (pregnant ewes yet to lamb) are moved onto a fresh cereal crop.

Drift lambing continues for the duration of lambing, with ewes moved from paddock to paddock until they lamb as this “helps limit mis-mothering”.

Tim says drift lambing is not particularly arduous in terms of labour, ensures smaller mob sizes and makes record-keeping simpler because animals are grouped according to when they give birth.

“We’d still be checking the lambing ewes every day even if we weren’t doing drift lambing. The sheep are not hard to shift, we just open the gate and they go into the next paddock.”

Cereal paddocks are grazed, on average, for only 10 to 14 days, with the sheep generally just taking the top 10 centimetres – about half the biomass. When crops reach GS30 (stem elongation) sheep are removed and the crops left to mature.

Photo of stem with description of growth stage 30 overlaid: Position of first node with no internode greater than 1cm. Tip of developing ear is 1cm more from stem base.

GS30 stem elongation.

PHOTO: GRDC

Tim believes drift lambing complements his farming system because it allows cereal paddocks to be rotationally grazed, minimising any potential soil compaction or pugging.

Challenges

While Tim and Jodie try to keep their system as “simple as possible”, they concede grazing crops can complicate some things.

“Top dressing can be a struggle, because we have to wait until we remove the sheep,” Tim says.

Spraying is also more complicated with withholding periods for grazing livestock a consideration. In fact, it is for this reason that Tim is yet to attempt grazing canola.

“We plan to graze our TT canola but haven’t yet worked out how to juggle the withholding periods,” he explains.

Tim says weed control is a priority and, if needs be, some paddocks are not grazed.

“We try to be flexible and have a ‘plan B’. We deal with our weeds if they become a problem and, likewise, if paddocks become dusty or sheep are losing condition, we take them out.”

The future

Perhaps the most exciting outcome of the Grain & Graze system is the opportunity it has given Tim and Jodie to expand.

“If we can get our efficiencies right, we could expand by up to one-third.”

* Justine Severin is from the Birchip Cropping Group (BCG).

More information:

Alison Frischke, BCG,
0429 922 787,

alison@bcg.org.au

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GRDC Project Code BWD00018

Region South