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Grass - Getting the basics right this grazing season

12 April 2018
Type Media Article

Catherine Egan, Teagasc Grass10 Specialist

In 2017 Teagasc launched Grass10 a multi-year campaign (2017-2020) to increase grass utilisation on Irish livestock farms (dairy, beef and sheep), with the objective of achieving: 10t grass DM/ha/year utilised; and, 10 grazing’s/paddock/year. Achieving this will require changes in farm practices associated with both grass production and utilisation, including soil fertility, sward composition, grassland measurement and grazing infrastructure. The Grass10 campaign will focus on each of these areas.

Grass utilised can be increased on farms by either increasing the amount of grass grown and/or improving the utilisation rate. By having the right grazing infrastructure in place will increase grass utilisation which will be influenced further through grazing management of the paddock system.

The start of the grazing season is an excellent time to review grazing infrastructure on your farm. Focus on the positives and negatives from last year on certain fields. Hence a plan can be developed based on farm size, stocking rate and long term goals of the farm.

What benefits are there in setting up a paddock system?

  • Improves sward quality hence increasing daily live weight gain
  • Gives more control on grazing management
  • Allows for taking out surplus grass resulting in top quality silage during the peak grazing season
  • Allows for creep grazing with calves/lambs later in season
  • Allows for a more targeted fertiliser programme

Steps to setting up paddock system

1. Develop a farm map with exact areas

The first step is developing a detailed map of the farm. Identifying ungrazeable areas, walls, ditches and hedgerows will influence where paddocks and farm roadways will go. Talk to your advisor about developing a farm map or alternatively use your own paper map. There are also a number of free maps on-line and apps that can be used to map the farm.

2. Number each paddock

A number of fields have field names. By using a number on each paddock this can help simplify the setting up of a map of the farm and splitting fields. It will also help if you decide to measure grass in the future.

3. Paddock size

The aim on beef and sheep farms is to grow grass in three weeks and graze it in three days. Hence, three-day paddocks should be set up. A common question arises regarding correct size of paddocks when dividing up fields. An example of calculating the grazing area is outlined in Table 1 below and this assumes a group of 10 suckler cows and 10 weanlings grazing on free-draining, productive ground. The plan is to have 6-7 paddocks per grazing group. Avoid long narrow paddocks to minimise poaching. Aim for a ratio of 2:1 so fields are twice as long as they are wide.

Table 1: Calculating Paddock Size:

Stock numbersLiveweightDaysTotal kg liveweight
10 cows 650kg 3 19,500kg
10 weanlings 200kg 3 6,000kg
    Total 25,000kg
      @ 2% body weight
    Intake per day 510kg
    Target cover per
grazing cover
1,200kg
    510/1200 = 0.50Ha (1.25 acre)

 4. Plan out drinking points when dividing fields

Trough location in the paddock is well worth considering. Avoid locating troughs near gateways. Ensure position water troughs in a central location in the field, which can allow it to be split to serve a minimum of two paddocks. Ensure the drinker in positioned on level ground and balanced with some hardcore if necessary. In some cases splitting fields like the spokes of a wheel from the drinker will ensure that cattle continue to have access to water while getting regular allocations of grass. Alternatively by opting to divide larger, square fields, in four, with one drinker serving many paddocks is an option.

5. Farm roadways

The use of permanent or temporary roadways can be very effective managing grass. Roadways enable more efficient access to paddocks. They allow for easier movement and management of livestock around the farm. Roadways also allow for easier management of grass during difficult grazing conditions. Ultimately farm budgets will determine which roadway type.

The aim is to graze each paddock for three days and allow twenty-one days recovery and re-growth. The paddock system allows better control of grass, increased grass growth and improved animal performance. Cattle are easier managed and become more docile. This is important in a one person operation.

The ideal pre-grazing grass height is 10-12 cm which is grazed tight to 4 cm. This varies during the grazing season and is very dependent on the weather. Utilisation of grass is key in a grass based production system. The main emphasis on farm is to maximise the proportion of highly digestible grazed grass into the animal’s diet. Therefore, it is essential to have a good paddock system to enable this to happen.