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Getting out to Grass

12 April 2018
Type Media Article

By Mícheál Kelly, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit

Many farmers in our region fondly remember the last week in July as the last time we had ‘a decent spell of weather’. 2017 received a lot of negative press in terms of weather and its’ unfavourable harvest conditions but in actual fact it was a fantastic year for grass growth. The grazing conditions however blurred the lines on this as, on many farms, it was difficult to make use of the additional grass grown.

After a very wet winter, the presence of grass on farms varies greatly. In some instances there are large covers of grass on farms as stock were housed early in order to prevent drops in animal performance or to prevent damage to the fields by poaching; in other instances stock were not housed until very late in order to reduce the demand for silage, which, given the poor growth conditions so far this year, has meant that those animals are still housed as there is inadequate grass on the farm to support them.

Grass availability and ground grazing conditions are equally as important at this time of year and it is essential for each and every farmer to now carry out his/her own assessment of their own farm. Soils that by their nature that are heavy in clay will be more prone to holding water, which makes them more susceptible to damage and compaction during grazing, while sandy soils are more free draining and generally drier for grazing.

It is important to gradually start to turn stock out from now on. All stock are a priority to get out at this stage as the wintering period has been exceptionally long and silage reserves are low. Stores and weanlings will thrive better on grass rather than silage while suckler cows will regain condition for breeding at a faster rate, as well as it being a better environment for calves. Monitor calves for signs of nutritional scour once the cows hit grass and always be prepared to rehouse if conditions take a turn for the worst. In light of the weather events of recent winters, it is beneficial to have some pit silage or bales left over for next year. It may even be an option to sell surplus silage if you have enough grass on the farm to sustain your animals from now on.

Fields should be grazed bare (3.5cm from ground) in the spring. 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. 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.

It is easier to graze paddocks out completely without causing damage in a rotational grazing or paddock system. However, wire reels and pigtail posts can do a lot of work in improving the clean-out of larger fields on set-stocked farms. Reducing the grazing area will reduce the wastage of grass and prevent the grazing of any regrowth, which will slow down grass recovery.

Each time a grass plant is grazed it must draw on its’ roots food reserves to send up a new leaf. When the new leaf is regrazed again before it has had a chance to build up its’ reserve, the plant must draw on its’ root reserves again to establish another new leaf and where this cycle continually occurs, the root reserves become depleted and the grass tiller will die. This is a major cause of perennial ryegrass plants not surviving in new swards.

Where the main water trough in a field is inside the gate, placing temporary fences in a manner similar to the spokes of a wheel will allow the division of fields while also giving the animal’s access to water at all times. It is vital to ensure cattle always have access to water.  At least some nitrogen should have been applied to land by now. You will clearly spot the fields that have received slurry or nitrogen in recent weeks as you travel the road due to their deep green colour. Grass growth has been poor so the response to this fertiliser is slow, however, once growth starts, the grass plant has the fuel it needs readily available to it. We must realise that fertilisers can take 7-10 days for the granules to breakdown and begin to work in the soil. Waiting to apply fertiliser until grass growth is in full flow can mean the grass will be hungry when it needs nutrients most. Where possible the majority of slurry should be applied in spring as a higher proportion of the nitrogen in it can be recovered by the plant.

Silage fields that are grazed should receive 3000 gallons/acre of slurry. Silage ground is hungry for P & K and it is important to use slurry effectively on-farm as it can lead to huge cost savings. When closing for silage it is important to leave 7-10 days between applying slurry and applying bagged Nitrogen. You should follow the guidelines from your soil samples or nutrient management plan in relation to applying compound fertilisers on your farm and to ensure you remain within your fertiliser limits.