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Learnings from Ballyhaise - managing through a difficult spring

Learnings from Ballyhaise - managing through a difficult spring

Like many farms across the country, the dairy research herd at Teagasc Ballyhaise has been dealing with the difficulties ensuing from a wet spring.

As part of the ‘Managing the herd in current weather conditions’ webinar held on April 2, Donal Patton detailed how the herd has performed this spring, highlighting the challenges that have occurred in terms of grazing thus far.

On account of wet weather, Donal explained, day grazings have been prioritised, with grazing at night posing challenging or almost impossible. This strategy has resulted in 52% of the milking platform being grazed, meaning the unit is only slightly behind target of finishing its first rotation on April 15-20.

“One of the problems is that what is left, there is a good proportion of that more marginal area and there’s a lot of that ground to get through over the next couple of weeks,” Donal said.

In terms of grass production, the unit has an average farm cover of 640kg DM/ha – slightly behind the desired targeted – and growth rates had remained relatively similar to average up until this week. However, on account of insufficient weather and untrafficable ground to apply the second round of nitrogen (N), the lack of nitrogen began to show on this week’s growth rates which were behind average from previous years. Thus far, just 23 units of N/ac have been applied, being spread in early March, with further fertiliser applications being dictated by the lack of suitable weather conditions.

“We were lucky we did get out with fertiliser in early March, but we haven't got out with anything since and you can really see that now in terms of the start of the second round. Those paddocks look like they need nitrogen but I don’t think we are going to get it done this week but we’ll see what the forecast brings,” Donal said.

With more silage entering the diet of the last two weeks, Donal noted that production “is nothing to write home about”. Cows are producing 23.9L at 4.67% fat and 3.26% protein from a meal input of 4.5kg/head/day. Although silage supplies are tightening, the introduction of a ‘third’ or straight feed hasn’t occurred just yet and Donal is hoping grazing conditions will improve before the need to add further supplement to the diet arises.

“If the weather had of been right this week, we would have been going day and night but we are kind of holding off for the next few days to see how things pan out. We would like to have a bit more grass ahead of us before we go day and night. We are just stretching what we have for the next 15 odd days,” he added.

Late systems study

Along with providing an update on the performance of the herd this spring, Donal also spoke on a systems research project which examined the impact of early and late turnout in the Border, Midlands and Western (BMW) region.

Completed over four years, the study’s findings – especially in relation to managing pastures from the beginning of the second rotation on – now seem more appropriate to many farms across the country who have struggled to get to grass on account of this year’s wet spring. As part of the study, closing dates of October 20 were established, while grazing didn’t commence until late March as part of the ‘late’ system group.

He said: “We actually learned how to manage situations like this, where some people just genuinely couldn’t get out or wouldn't have got a big area grazed over the last number of weeks, and they're probably faced with the similar challenges that we had with our late turnout group.

“It was a four-year trial. We looked at the effects being housed for longer periods had on cow performance and – everybody is seeing it this year – protein percentages  reduced, yield reduced and the amount of feed you have to put in is increasing.

“We know that and that’s why there has been such a drive to get people out when they can to utilise grass. It reduces our costs, increases our performance and it is really in years like this where you can’t get out that you really see the value of grass.”

Similar to the challenges being experienced at farm level this spring, the late turnout group as part of the study experienced a high cover at turnout, as grass continued to grow from closing right through to turnout in late March.

Commenting on the practices put in place to ensure that grass quality was improved during the second and subsequent rotations when opening with a farm cover of ~1,200kg DM/ha, Donal said: “There was huge differences in autumn and spring. But through the mid-portion of the year, through management decisions we took mainly in April and early May, we got the thing back on track pretty well and that transpired into high performance and it also transpired into grass quality, so we actually corrected the grass quality by the decisions we made in April and early May.”

On how the late turnout group was transitioned to the second rotation and what practices were employed, Donal said: “Over the four years, we didn’t start on those treatments at the top of the wedge. We inverted the wedge. We basically started as close to the bottom as we possibly could. If we were in at night, which we were for the first week, we grazed light covers of 800kg DM/ha and then once we went fulltime, we were in the 1,100-1,200kg DM/ha covers.

“It was around April 25 when we finished the first rotation on those treatments and we ended up skipping 25-30% of the area and baled that early in late April and early May. We went in and took that out and I think that was the big thing that helped to correct the situation.”

Also read: Getting grass in the diet a priority on dairy farms

Also read: How do we best feed the dairy cow in the current situation?

More from the ‘Managing the herd in current weather conditions’ webinar