5th April 2012

Geese Challenge Grassland Improvement Plans on Mull Monitor Farm

The benefits and challenges of improving grassland and the growing of forage crops to increase livestock feed flexibility and productivity were the hot topics at the recent monitor farm meeting on the Isle of Mull.

Iain MacKay, whose business is one of Quality Meat Scotland’s national programme of monitor farms, has a five year Short Limited Duration Tenancy (SLDT) on Torloisk. The farm is a predominantly hill unit of 7,600 acres on the island’s west coast, with a limited amount of ploughable land in the approximately 380 acres below the hill dyke.

Mr MacKay is determined to boost productivity by improving the grassland and increasing the feed options for his Elite Health status fold of approximately 50 pedigree Highland cows, some of which are crossed with the Simmental bull, plus his sheep enterprise, which totals 850 breeding ewes.

Having identified some cultivatable areas on Torloisk last year Mr MacKay re-seeded a three acre block with Westerwolds, Mingary and clover following a forage rape crop.

He also planted 4.5 acres of forage crops – a mixture of Stygo fodder rape, Samson stubble turnips and Swift, a hybrid kale/rape. A further 8.6 acres had been over-sown after harrowing, with a bespoke mix which included clover and Timothy.

Having taken 15 large bales of silage off the three acre re-seed a few months after it had been sown, Mr MacKay has already recouped more than half the cost (£173 per acre), of establishing the new grass. Lambs had then been grazed on the young grass until November. Since then no stock had been turned on.

This new, sweet and succulent grass mix had however been heavily grazed by something else – Greylag geese, an increasing problem for Hebridean farmers.

In addition, heavy rainfall (which on Mull, has averaged over half an inch a day for the last six months) has also taken its toll on the fragile, young plants.

Peter Addie of Watson Seeds, suppliers of the seed, explained that too much brown earth was visible. The mild winter had also encouraged weeds, in particular daisies and buttercups, plus some docks, indicating an acid soil.

When the group had viewed this re-seed in September 2011, clover had been abundant, however much of that clover has now gone. “Geese are attracted to this tasty area and pull up the young clover,” explained Peter Addie. “So it’s important to try to keep them off to enable the remaining clover to grow on and produce stolons to create new plants.”

Cattle will be kept off for at least another year, to allow the remaining clover to establish.“While it’s tempting to re-seed the area, it will simply attract even more geese!” Mr Addie added.

If conditions are dry enough in July/August, community group member Somerset Charrington will aerate half of the re-seeded area, to determine whether or not this will help to improve drainage.

A cwt of 20.10.10 per acre was recommended, to help encourage ryegrass, which should then compete with the weeds. Future grazing would be kept at a maximum height of around two inches, enabling clover to fix nitrogen to maintain grass growth.

The forage crops had enabled Mr MacKay to finish some lambs at 16 to 17 kgs deadweight.

SAC sheep specialist John Vipond had advised the rumen of lambs under 25kgs cannot cope with forage crops. At the recent meeting, Mr MacKay confirmed to the group that Mr Vipond’ s advice had been correct, however lambs over 27kgs at turn-out had thrived particularly well.

A further six acre ploughable area has been identified for improvement this year. Currently there is a considerable amount of moss within the pasture.

The soil has been analysed to establish pH, phosphate and potash levels.

Gavin Elrick, a Soils and Drainage expert with SAC, advised digging a hole to assess the soil structure before embarking on a re-seed project. It is particularly valuable to check if plant roots are able to grow down unrestricted.

The next meeting of the Mull Monitor Farm is scheduled for early June. More information is available at www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms

Sign up for the latest news and views