At the time of writing (May 5) grass growth is looking pretty good for most of the country. This eases the pressure during times of high input costs, but, it takes good management to keep grass in good quality – few stems, minimal dead leaves and lots of clover – for weaned lambs later in the year.

For grazing ewes and lambs this creates a fine balancing act – how to manage grazing now for good lactation performance whilst also keeping an eye on quality in the future – it is no mean feat.

In terms of grazing management, you could opt for set stocking, simple rotational grazing or leader-follower grazing.

Set stocking during the summer months is often justifiable – grass supply is generally greater than demand so there is no great pressure to maximise utilisation. However, grazing still requires adaption to the grass growth conditions, otherwise grass quality later in the year is being left to chance.

Under set stocking, grass should be kept in the 6-8cm range. If it goes beyond this range, the stock will become more selective and poor-quality areas will build up. This is where reducing the grazing area or bringing in more stock is beneficial.

A simple rotational grazing plan could stock the area relatively heavily (up to 28 ewes and lambs/ha) with access to a buffer area when grass heights fail to reach the target on entry (8cm) or could stock more conservatively (20 ewes and lambs/ha) with the ability to take paddocks out for silage making when grass heights exceed the 8cm pre-entry target.

A three-week, three-day rotation (three-week rest, three-day grazing interval, therefore eight paddocks) is often a good framework for starters – the rest period should be 12-21 days, adapt according to the pre-entry grass height and graze to around 5cm. Any shorter and lamb growth rates will be compromised and/or the ewes will lose more condition.

Leader-follower grazing is where a priority group (often ewes with twins, ewes with triplets or finishing stock) reach the paddock first and graze the best stuff to around 6cm followed by a lower priority group (often ewes and singles, cows and calves or growing heifers) that can graze to 4-5cm.

The lower priority group is that which can utilise the poorer quality grass without compromising animal performance to a high degree. Leader-follower grazing is great as it can be challenging to graze down to low enough with a single group without affecting their performance. The followers should be no more than two paddocks behind the leaders. It is worthwhile considering the performance of the followers carefully – is the practice affecting profitability?

Topping works as a last resort to correct the pasture quality if it has got out of control – you want a clean cut, so often a mower is better for the job than a topper – and it should be cut low (4-5cm) to encourage green leaf growth.

This is often a nice compromise once or twice during the grazing season as it is simple and negates the need to graze the stock too low. Deferred grazing later in the season could be another option too – why bother expending fuel cutting if it can be kept as a standing hay crop for weaned ewes or cows later in the year?

There are many options to consider, so keep priorities in mind. Animal performance in the short term is the first point of call with an eye on performance further down the line – by managing grass quality.

It is not simple and will always require adaption and refinement, but it is worth it to keep those lambs growing well and cost-effectively.

The newly published Forage First Sheep Systems has more ideas for cost-effective flock management and is available online or as a hard copy by request to Keep an eye out for the FAS Grazing Mini Webinar series launching on May 26, too.