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Time to bite the bullet on grazing?

Time to bite the bullet on grazing?

On beef farms, Mícheál Kelly, B&T Drystock Advisor, Teagasc Galway/Clare writes, there is lots of grass available, but farmers have been unable to get cattle out to grass due to a combination of poor ground conditions and erratic, harsh weather.

Feed bills are high with meal and fodder crops being fed to try to stretch the silage which is disappearing at a rate of knots. On a lot of farms at the minute, the stress levels and the water table are higher than where we would like to see them.

Many have fields that have been closed since last October/November and little has been grazed yet this spring. This, along with poor weather, has led to delays in slurry application and the tanks are now almost full on many farms and the fields are completely empty.

Ultimately, we will have to start getting some stock out to get on top of things. Grass growth rates are higher than average at the moment and we need to make the most of it. Getting stock out will increase animal performance, lower the farm’s environmental footprint and reduce your feed costs.


It may well be time to bite the bullet and get some fertiliser out to kick the season off. Fertiliser sales are lower to date this year due to a combination of uncertainty on both prices and fertiliser allowances. However, when cattle go out, we all want to try and keep them out where possible so we need to get going now.

If we take a tonne of standard urea (46% nitrogen) at a current price of €480 per tonne, which contains 460kg nitrogen, each kilo of nitrogen costs €1.04. A range of studies on spring nitrogen application have shown that the average response rate per kilo of nitrogen applied is 10.7kg Dry Matter. So your €480 investment will yield, on average, 4,922kg of grass Dry Matter, which in layman’s terms is equivalent to just over 22 bales of silage. Spreading now will allow you to get all stock at grass sooner.

Managing silage swards

Ideally, we should aim to have silage ground grazed off by mid-March in order to get slurry and fertiliser applied to hit a target cutting date of May 20. This will not be possible on every farm and, in all probability, not all of the silage ground will get grazed before closing.

Fields closed since last October will have seen good growth over the winter. However, due to poorer weather this spring, this has not been grazed off. Grass that has been growing since cattle were housed will have built up a lot of dead material at the butt. To put the importance of tight grazing in spring into context, over 80% of fresh, leafy grass can be digested and used by the animal, whereas less than 50% of the mature stem and dead material content of a sward is of any benefit.

In reality, some of these heavy covers will be closed immediately for silage without being grazed. In this scenario the digestibility of the silage will be reduced, but it can be cut earlier and brought back into the rotation quickly.

The exception to this is where fields were grazed into the end of December. These fields will have higher quality grass on them and can be closed immediately as the period since they were last grazed is much shorter.

Where high-quality silage is needed, fields should be grazed out in blocks, using temporary fences to increase grass utilisation and achieve a good graze out. Fields should be grazed bare (3.5cm from ground) in the spring. Grazing to low levels in the spring will clean out this poorly-digestible material and allow the grass plant to generate new highly-digestible leaf material and additional tillers.

All in all we have to start somewhere with grazing. Where possible choose square, sheltered, drier fields with lower grass covers. This will allow you to get through a larger grazing area quickly and those fields will be getting back into a rotation with better regrowths and high-quality grass. Given ground conditions, get lighter stock out first. Some are better than none. Anything that gets grazed is regrowing as the cattle move on so that there is grass available when the rest of the stock get out.