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Short of grass in May? What are the options?


We have had an unusual spring in terms of growth. Weather has been much harsher and colder than usual. Recent lower than normal growth rates may result in low grass covers and shortages on farm. Alan Dillon, Teagasc Beef Specialist has four useful suggestions to help and advises taking action now

We have had an unusual spring in terms of growth. Weather has been much harsher and colder than usual but without any major extreme frosts or snow events for any length of time. The damage has been done by a prevailing northerly wind followed by very late night frosts which have rendered growth rates at somewhere near 50% below normal for the time of year up to now. In simple terms it’s quite common for many fertile swards with a high proportion of perennial ryegrass growing at a rate of 80-100kg DM per day by late April and early May. This is what results in surplus paddocks being harvested in early May each year as growth has exceeded demand.

Growth rates for the past number of weeks have hovered in general at 45-55kg DM/day, with older swards or swards with lower levels of soil fertility growing at much lower rates again.

This has resulted in some farms running down grass covers and ending up in a situation where grass covers may be slow to recover. Temperatures will rise naturally as May progresses and grass growth will recover to near normal levels.

Your options, if short of grass

If you are short of grass, what are your options to tide your farm over until conditions improve?

  1. Ensure swards are adequately fertilized. The level to which a sward is fertilized will depend on current levels of soil fertility and overall farm stocking rate but if short of grass now, applying 25-30 units per acre of nitrogen as part of a compound or in the form of protected urea will give an economic response and will help maintain sward quality. Reseeded swards will give the best response to nitrogen and should be targeted first.
  2. Buffer feed silage in paddocks. While we have been in bad situations in the first week of May regarding managing grass supplies before (who could forget the spring of 2018?), we are in a much better situation this year than 2018 as ground conditions are good and no damage is being done. This gives farmers an opportunity to buffer feed silage in fields to slow down the rotation and keep up average farm cover. Paddocks can be grazed out tight before stock are moved on and this will allow good quality grass to regrow. It’s important to move stock on regularly with strip wires and not to allow cattle to stand on ground too long thus grazing below 3cm which will hit regrowth. This option is more suited to yearlings and and forward stores or autumn calving cows where calves can be allowed to graze ahead. Changing of diet in spring calving suckler cows in the start of their breeding season or maiden heifers may upset their energy balance and hit conception rates. If weather was to turn very wet the same categories of stock could be housed for short periods to avoid poaching ground. It may be easier from a labour point of view also.
  3.  Feed meal at grass. While spring grass is the ideal feed in terms of energy and protein intake along with being low cost. If it is in short supply, are there some categories of stock that could have meals introduced? Two year old steers or heifers targeted for slaughter in June could be the ideal type of stock. Feeding them 4-5 kg of meal at grass will reduce demand and also help increase fat score in the run up to slaughter. Beef prices are good at the minute and supplies look to stay tight so having a group of stock ready to kill in late May or early June could pay off this year. 

  4. Graze silage ground. Ideally this should be a last resort at this time of year. For farmers with a target harvest date of the last week of May, crops will be growing well even in cool conditions with high covers of grass developed at this stage. Fertilizer will presumably be out for around 30 days or more at this stage so ideally these crops should be allowed to grow on until harvest time in a few weeks. Harvesting early as planned will not only ensure high quality feed for the winter ahead but also allow the sward back into the rotation by late June when grass demand may be higher on some farms.

Summary

Whatever option is seen to be fit for your farm, if you see a big grass shortage emerging, it is best to take action now to avoid any upset in diet especially in breeding stock. Higher stocked farms are obviously more likely to be short of grass due to higher daily demand but many lighter stocked farms which typically use lower levels of fertilizer may be heading into a shortage also. In any case the situation is likely to be short lived with a prediction on Met Eireanns monthly forecast that conditions and temperatures will improve in the next 10-14 days. A shortage can turn into surplus very quickly at this time of year.

Read more on Grassland Management for Beef here

The Teagasc Beef Specialists issue an article on a topic of interest to suckler & cattle farmers every Wednesday here on Teagasc Daily