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Coping with a slow spring

27 March 2018
Type Factsheet

Cattle Specialist Karen Dukelow gives some advice and tips on dealing with the conditions this spring which have proven very difficult with rain, snow and very slow grass growths. As a result very little grazing has been completed on a lot of beef farms. This has resulted in dwindling silage supplies and full slurry tanks.

Getting going again this spring!

Get fertiliser out

As soon as conditions are right (when you can travel with the tractor and spinner and when very heavy rain is not forecast) spreading fertiliser is the number one priority. This is because it takes time for fertiliser to work so it needs to be spread now in order to have grass in April. Ground conditions on many farms are good enough for spreading. Skip very wet paddocks if necessary to ensure you get the good ground fertilised and moving. Come back to the wetter paddocks once conditions improve. Apply 3/4 to 1 bag urea/acre. If no fertiliser has been spread to date, go again in 2-3 weeks with another 30 units of N, switching to a compound like 18-6-12 where ground conditions are very good and where soil indices are at low P & K.

Even at a moderate reponse to nitrogen, research by Teagasc has shown that spreading 48 units of N/acre in the spring produced extra grass at a cost of €80/t DM. This is far cheaper than silage which costs about €150/t DM and meal which costs around €300 t/DM. In a year were both silage and grass supplies are tight you cannot afford not to spread Nitrogen.

Put a grazing plan in place

If we extend the first rotation to the third week of April there is approximately 4 weeks left to graze the farm. If you have 100 acres to graze, graze 25 acres a week. If growth continues to be slow and recovery is slow, reduce the acreage grazed to 20 acres/week. Even with low covers on many farms, this will require turning most of the livestock out. At a modest growth of 20kg DM//ha/day, on 40 ha, this is enough to carry 40 t LW, which is the equivalent of 35 suckler cows and 35 yearlings. You will be able to carry more stock if paddocks were closed in rotation last autumn and there are heavier covers on your farm, the important thing is that you stick to the acreage grazed each week. When growth does take-off be prepared to speed up rotation length by grazing 1/3 of the grazing area per week.

The decision to graze silage ground or not this spring will be farm specific. Where little or no ground has been grazed this spring it will make sense to close silage ground without grazing, fertilise and close. Where grass is very tight or where silage ground is the only dry ground, it will make sense to graze silage ground. On drystock farms there are usually multiple grazing groups so if grazing silage ground, try to graze grazing ground with another bunch of stock so that there is a reasonable grazing interval and time for paddocks to recover for the second rotation. It is important to start looking ahead to the silage harvest in order to ensure the maximum yield and best quality possible. Cutting silage from the third week of May to the start of June will ensure that there will also be an opportunity to take a second cut, thereby maximizing the silage yield for the year.

Be flexible

The key to managing grazing with poor ground conditions is to be flexible! Be prepared to think outside the norm and bring cattle in again if needs be. Anything that gives you more options will help, such as multiple gaps in fields, strip wire, roadways, etc.

Have you thought about on/off grazing?  Many of ye will say this is impossible or “it’s alright for dairy farmers”, but why not bring cattle off grass if it starts a downpour while they are out? A few hours grazing are far better than none and you will limit damage to the ground by taking them off while it is wet overhead. Some suckler farmers turn suckler cows out after the school run in the morning and bring them in again before doing the school run in the afternoon. There is no problem getting cows back in as they will want to return to their calves. Every day at grass is worth €2.00/animal. So, for 35 cows and 35 yearlings, it is worth €140/day or €1000/week!

Be careful with slurry

Housing has come under real pressure and it is a reality that a home will have to be found for the extra slurry produced while cattle were kept inside. However, try to avoid spreading slurry on heavy covers of grass unless it is very watery. There is a risk that thick slurry will stick to the leaves and will reduce palatability for grazing. Instead, consider applying slurry to the ground immediately after it has been grazed so that there is time for it to have soaked in before the second rotation.

Look after cattle still inside

If you have played every trick in the book and still can’t get to grass, what are your options? If you have enough fodder, the normal guidelines apply.

First calvers

These animals are your number one priority. They are still growing and will need to get back in calf. All first calvers should get 1-2kg meal pre turnout regardless of silage quality.

Calved suckler cows

Turn calved cows out as soon as possible! If you can’t turn them out they need to get 2kg meal along with ad lib silage. The only scenario where you can get away without feeding meals to these cows is where you have good quality silage; cows are in good order and are getting out to grass within a month of calving.

Cows that haven’t calved yet

Avoid making big changes to their feeding in the three weeks pre calving. This year most silage is good enough to maintain a dry cow. If silage is very poor she will need 2kg meal/day. Don’t forget to feed a good pre-calver mineral.


You should take meal out of weanling/store diets pre turnout to maximise compensatory growth (unless silage quality is very poor or silage is running out).

If you are facing the back of the silage pit, there are a number of options available. In reality it will probably mean using a combination of the options, weigh up the economics and what’s feasible for you considering labour, facilities and finance available.

-look again at grass, have you any option to get even a small number of stock out to the driest part of the farm?

-buy in silage/hay

-sell some stock, e.g. empty cows, forward stores

-stretch out remaining fodder by feeding extra meal or moving finishing stock onto adlib meal feeding.

Cattle other than finishing stock can be restricted to 40% of their fodder requirement by supplementing with extra concentrate (Table 1). On farm it can be difficult to weigh silage. For simplicity, it may be easier to halve the number of grabs/bales being fed with extra meal being fed. Or another handy rule of thumb is a 600kg round bale would comfortably feed 20 cows with 2 kg meal going in. Meal feeding compares well with buying in extra silage with the meal feeding costing 50 cent/day per cow and buying in silage costing €1.00/day. However, for this system to work, silage needs to be restricted and every animal needs to eat at once, so feed space is critical, allow 2 foot per cow and 1 foot per yearling. Don’t forget to feed minerals, particularly important with limited and/or poor quality silage Ensure a good supply of fresh water. Build up feeding rates slowly. This may require setting up additional trough feeding space in yards. All animals should be monitored regularly for signs of ill-thrift on this system. Monitor cow condition regularly. Supplementation rates may need to be increased or decreased, according.

Table 1: Meal feeding rates and CP required with silage restricted to 40%

 kg silage neededkg meals neededCrude Protein % in
Suckler cow (dry) 18-20 1.5-2 12-14
Suckler cows with calves 18-20 5-6 14-15
Weanling 8-10 2-4 14-15
Stores (350 kg) 12-15 2-3 12-14
Stores (500 kg) / in calf heifers 18-20 3-4 12-14