Future Beef Update: Moving from challenging grazing conditions to a surplus position
Wesley Browne farms full-time in Leagh, Dunraymond, just outside Monaghan town on heavy, drumlin-type soil, which is typical of the area. The farm size is 65.7ha and is fragmented into four main grassland blocks.
Gabriel Trayers, Future Beef Programme Advisor to the farm, explains how Wesley is gaining confidence through weekly grass walks to stay on track with grazing in challenging conditions in this article.
Wesley runs a simple farming system with a 90-cow, spring-calving suckler herd. All male progeny are finished as under 16 month bulls. Suitable high-index females are either retained or sold to repeat customers for breeding, with all other heifers slaughtered at 23-24 months. Calving started in early February this year and the herd calved compactly in just eight weeks.
An emphasis is placed on grassland management. 45 grazing divisions are present, split using a combination of permanent and temporary fencing. All of these paddocks have good water access, which facilitates the grazing of 3-4 groups.
Wesley is measuring grass on a weekly basis using PastureBase Ireland to help him make the correct grazing decisions. From a labour and animal performance point of view, getting cows and calves out to grass quickly after calving is a priority for Wesley.
All was going well in February – ground conditions were excellent and there was an average farm cover (AFC) on February 18th of 1,096kg DM/ha. However, March and early April were very wet and ground conditions deteriorated. While many farmers across the county chose to re-house, this option was not available to Wesley due to the farm being fragmented.
Wesley managed to keep the cows out by keeping the group size small (5-7 cows per group). The paddocks are well sheltered and Wesley kept moving the groups every 3 to 4 days; a lot of effort, but Wesley was determined to keep his cows out.
Growth at the end of March was poor, with growth rates of just 5kg DM/ha/day recorded. At the same time, demand was 31kg DM/ha/day. As a result, average farm cover dropped to 483kg DM/ha by April 19th. A rule of thumb in grassland management is not to allow the AFC to drop below 500kg DM/ha. Remember: ‘It takes grass to grow grass’.
Wesley took the opportunity to apply 18 units of urea + sulphur per acre on March 27th to the grazing ground and this was followed up with another 18 units on April 22nd. As a result, growth increased slowly to 35kg DM/ha/day.
Another farm cover taken on May 3rd has given Wesley more confidence. While ground conditions are still tender (recently grazed paddock pictured above), there has been a big jump in growth to 61kg DM/ha/day due to milder weather and the fact fertiliser had been applied. This is now giving 20 days of grass ahead - an increase of five days from last week. The target for this time of year is 14. Average farm cover has increased to just over 600kg DM/ha. So in the space of one week, grass has gone from being tight on the farm to possibly getting into a surplus. It highlights why grass is so difficult to manage on farms.
Figure 1: PastureBase Ireland summary from Wesley Browne's farm
The silage ground was zero grazed in early March and then received 3,000 gallons of slurry per acre plus 80 units of protected urea per acre. The target is to have this ready for cutting in the third week of May. High quality (70% DMD) silage is needed for the weanlings, so a cutting date in May is crucial.
Wesley plans to amalgamate the smaller groups into three larger groups of 30 cows each. A reduction in group numbers will be make grassland management a lot easier.
Lime spreading and dock control
In April, Wesley submitted an expression of interest to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s National Liming Programme. He plans to spread 200t this year. The plan is to increase the soil pH to 6.7 and start incorporating clover in 2024.
As part of the preparation to oversow clover next year, docks will need to be controlled this year. There is a large dock problem in most of the grassland. Wesley will spray as soon as possible using Dockstar. The docks are rapidly growing at the moment, making it an ideal time to spray.
For more inforation on the Teagasc Future Beef Programme, click here.
Also read: Reaping the benefits of red clover with Future Beef farmer Ken Gill