How to set-up grazing paddocks for wintering at grass

Read other farmers’ top tips on grass paddock management and electric fencing.

Back to: Deferred grazing/all-grass wintering

Which paddocks should I choose?

Daily paddock moves maximise grass utilisation but require more labour. It is worth looking at your paddock sizes and livestock numbers to work out the best system for your farm. Set up paddocks with electric fencing to match demand and days of feed available.

Fields that will be grazed at the beginning of winter should be shut up from September. The closing of fields should be staggered to ensure they are at different stages of growth, and therefore feed quality of the grass should be more consistent throughout the winter.

It is recommended to graze the paddocks which perform best in spring, first in the autumn/winter grazing, to allow a long recovery period before spring grazing. 

Calculate paddock size

  1. Deduct the residual from the grass cover for an estimate of available grass DM.
  2. Multiply livestock feed demand by the flock/herd size to give the daily feed demand.
  3. Divide the available feed by the flock/herd demand to give the days of feed available.
  4. Divide this number by frequency of flock/herd shifts (one day, two days, three days, etc.).

For example:

  • 4 ha field, grass cover: 2,300 kg DM/ha, target residual: 900 kg DM/ha (pre-scanning)
  • Available feed = (cover - residual) x area (ha) = (2,300 - 900) x 4 = 5,600 kg DM
  • Ewe demand 950 x 65 kg ewes in mid pregnancy budgeted for 1.5% of body weight per day 65 x 0.015 (1.5%) = 1.0 kg/head/day
  • 0 x 950 ewes = 950 kg/day
  • 5,600 ÷ 950 = six days of feed available
  • So split the field into six (0.7 ha or 1.7 acres) daily paddocks or two three-day paddocks

Top tips from farmers on electric fencing

  • Set up a series of paddocks ahead of grazing. For daily shifts, seven paddocks can take two people half a day, and subsequent daily movements take around 15 minutes
  • Three-day shifts will reduce labour requirements
  • Taking out the two posts at the corner of a paddock into the next paddock works well as a gate
  • Gates may need to be large as stock become used to moving through, but they learn the system quickly
  • Place gates at the top of the temporary paddock to start as sheep prefer to run uphill
  • Use a new galvanised wire and a strong battery at the start, as this will confine stock securely, reducing the risk of breakout before they learn the system
  • Use a metal wire on the bottom
  • For sheep, use a three-strand set-up using an ATV-based fencing machine to be quick and efficient
  • An ideal system consists of 600 m reels, with corner and end posts for each separate fencing area
  • Save money by using plastic top wire and stakes and not electrifying the fences in the paddocks ewes have just left
  • Move stock at the same time each day, so they know when to expect to be moved
  • Metal wires last longer but can break if kinked (reels on clutches reduce risk), other farmers prefer plastic wires
  • Stocking rates vary from 8.5–10 ewes/hectare

Case study 1: Dave Sanders, Norton Farm, Cornwall

General farm background

  • 220 ha (550 acres)
  • Approximately 2,400 NZ Romneys, of which 950 on deferred grazing in 2011
  • Average annual rainfall: 138.5 cm (54.5 inches)
  • Soils: Well-drained
  • Lambing: April
  • Started grazing on 1 December. Target starting cover was 2,000 kg DM/ha

Mr Sanders worked out the size of the paddocks by feed budgeting – measuring the amount of grass available and then estimating how much was required for the flock. When the grass was frozen, or the initial cover was below 1,200 kg DM/ha, silage bales were spread out but rarely eaten. The grass was measured when sheep were put in and taken out of a paddock and about once a month on the rest of the grazing area.

Body condition was monitored by putting sheep through the race once a month. Five per cent of ewes were pulled off following body condition score (BCS) as they were not coping. Faecal egg counting was used to monitor worm burden, and a detailed health plan was drawn up with the vet.

110 ha sustained the 950 ewes with only 11 kg fresh weight of silage per head provided and significantly less labour than when managed in the previous conventional system. Two people created the paddocks for the coming week in half a day. Daily sheep movements took about 15 minutes using an electric fencing kit mounted on a quad bike. Few health problems were found, and average grass growth was 10 kg per ha per day. Some fields did get very short of grass.

Preliminary calculation of the potential effect on profit (by SAC economist Robert Logan, based on the physical performance of the ewes and changes in the infrastructure required) suggest an increased profit of £17.80/ewe/year.

Case Study 2: Northumberland farm

General farm background

  • 170 ha (420 acres)
  • 900 mules and 50 spring calving cows
  • Average annual rainfall: 65 cm (25.6 inches)
  • Soils: Some heavy, otherwise well-drained
  • Started grazing daily paddocks on 12 December and finished on 2 April (111-day rotation)
  • Average starting covers ranged between 1,500–1,800 kg DM/ha
  • 600 ewes were put on the system and allocated 0.6 ha per day

After scanning, ewes with singles followed those carrying twins through the paddocks to keep condition off them and utilise the grass better. Four to seven daily paddocks were set up ahead of grazing.

The electric fencing was removed behind the ewes in wet weather, allowing access into the previously grazed paddocks to reduce stocking density. The only time the ewes were kept in the daily paddock was when it was wet, and they poached it badly.

A month before lambing, the ewes were supplemented with concentrates fed via a snacker machine on the grass, before the ewes were moved to the next paddock. Ewes were fed up to 0.5 kg of 18% crude protein cake per day, which was continued after housing. This gradual introduction to concentrates also ensured ewes were familiar with the diet before going indoors. As ewes that were due to lamb were drafted out of the grazing flock, the paddock size was decreased accordingly.

Grass growth was measured using a calibrated sward stick. Constant good stockmanship was important to check the ewes were eating enough. Their body condition was scored in September, December, at scanning and pre-lambing. Very few were pulled from the system, apart from those carrying triplets. Another batch of mature ewes of BCS 3 were added to make up the numbers to replace them.

Fluke was a problem in 2012, and rotavirus reduced lambing percentage to just under 160%. Lambing percentage was 10–20% down from previous years, mainly due to the health issues. Cost savings are difficult to estimate due to the extreme winter of 2012–2013. The snow in January meant the ewes were off the system for 14–18 days and given straw and feed blocks on a 4 ha (10 acre) field with ring feeders. This used up half the feed supply that could potentially be saved by carrying out deferred grazing.

A few tips:

  • Have a stock of ‘storm feed’ ready to last a month in case of bad snow
  • Watch the ewes carefully to make sure they are eating enough grazed grass
  • Generally, if they seem happy and content the system is working

Useful links

Learn more about electric fencing for livestock

More on water supplies, tracks and roadways for rotational grazing cattle

Using brassicas for Better Returns manual

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