Fescue in pasture brings big lamb gains
Adding fescue to his pasture mix has led to increased lamb survival and weight gain for Ken Fraser.
The Opuha Downs farmer uses the grass species on his farm to improve the weights on his lambing ewes and to increase his lamb survival rates.
He explained the benefits of using fescue at a Beef+Lamb field day on his property.
Data collected by Ken and Aorangi Vets' Mark Colson showed a 50 per cent increase of lamb weight on ewes feeding on fescue pastures. His tailing percentage for mixed age twin-bearing ewes set-stocked on fescue pastures was generally higher than the percentages of ewes feeding on other pasture species.
"It was another 7 per cent of lambs you're getting to the tailing board," Colson said.
Fescue provides plenty of feed in the early spring and gives the ewes the opportunity to get a good belly full of feed, he said.
The paddocks that had more feed provided by the fescue had higher lamb survivability, he said.
Farmers were shown a fescue paddock sown in late November. The paddock has 20kg/ha of fescue, 3kg of red clover, 2kg each of two different white clover species, and 1kg each of chicory and plantain.
Ken put hoggets on the first grazing of the fescue paddock. it was then left for 20 days before he ran a mob of heifers on it.
It had also had lambs on again since then.
Ken has about 60ha of fescue pasture on the 700ha farm and runs a mob of cattle and single bearing ewes on the other fescue paddocks.
The benefits of fescue were simple - farmers could grow a greater amount of dry matter in a smaller area and that feed was grown at key times of the year.
Ken told farmers he was grazing his fescue paddocks 50 per cent more than those paddocks with ryegrass because of the high level of dry matter content it produced in the spring.
Once that started the fescue paddock needed to be maintained or it lost its palatability and quality.
This was the biggest challenge in using fescue pasture.
Ken says his 60ha in fescue was "more than enough" because of the battle in maintaining its quality.
A good understanding of pasture management and grazing was needed to use fescue successfully, Agricom's Lyndon Anderson told farmers.
This was because the pasture had to be grazed harder than other species.
It was a pasture that would not suit every farming system, he said.
Those who used it had to have the flexibility to be able to increase stock numbers to maintain the pasture's quality.
"You have got to have flexibility.
"When this [fescue] goes in the spring, and it does, you need to be able to dump stock numbers on here. Once it goes, it goes."
The grazing frequency of a fescue paddock had to be increased.
"When fitted into a rotation the fescue paddock had to be grazed at the right time, rather than where they fitted into a rotation.
Fescue could handle rotational grazing or set stocking in the spring.
Those choosing to set stock should also do it at a 20-30 per cent heavier rate than on a ryegrass paddock, Anderson said.
He recommended keeping the fescue "just below gumboot height" for grazing and even lower during the spring.
Once established after a few years farmers should put plenty of stock on the pasture during the spring.
"Don't be afraid to give it a good hammering right down to 1000-1200kg DM. It will reward you later on with better quality feed.
"If you let it grow that next grazing will be less palatable and it will snowball and keep getting worse. "If in doubt hammer it."
A good place to start with fescue was to plant it into a paddock to see if it fitted into the farm system.
When selecting a paddock it should be one that can be mown if necessary, just in case the growth gets away.
It was also slower to establish than ryegrass and farmers needed to monitor it closely for weeds.
It suited areas where there were hot dry summers and grew well in 26-30 degree heat, whereas ryegrass wilted. It also tolerated insect pressure better because the roots were bulkier and denser.
It was best sown in the late spring or early summer.
The first grazing of a fescue paddock was critical. It needed to be done when the pasture was ready rather than when the stock were due to be shifted onto the paddock.
It should take place when the plant was 10-12cm and was well established in the roots.
"If not, then delay grazing."
He recommended following Ken's example of using a lighter stock class such as hoggets to allow the plant to become established.
"You are going to have to graze this more than ryegrass just because of how much it grows."
Beef+Lamb Central South Island farmer council chairman Bill Wright has a 13-year-old paddock of fescue on his farm and endorsed it as a feed option.
He often grazes his fescue twice on a two round rotation to maintain its feed quality.
"I hammer the hell out of it. To me, ryegrass is a weed on my farm, this stuff grows 30 per cent more feed," he said.
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