Attention to Detail Vital in Turning Grass into Profit

By the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute. Although the autumn and winter period have seen milk prices improve on the back of a buoyant world market, the first few months of 2008 have seen concentrate and fertiliser prices also increase substantially.
calendar icon 23 May 2008
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These price increases to key inputs have eroded most of the benefit of the elevated milk price, and indeed, careless use of concentrates and fertiliser resources could actually leave producers worse off. Therefore, now more than ever, attention to detail is a vital ingredient within a successful dairy enterprise, and this is especially applicable as dairy producers face the next challenge of 2008, a new grazing season.

With the grazing season already well under way on most farms, milk producers should switch their focus onto maximising the utilisation of grazed grass as soon as possible. Unfortunately, weather conditions during March did little to encourage early season grazing, with many farms seeing ground conditions deteriorate from what was a very promising position in late February. The increased price and limited availability of fertiliser, combined with the period of unsettled weather, led to caution amongst farmers, with many reluctant to start spreading the first fertiliser. However, an improvement in ground conditions in early April did see most producers getting fertiliser applied to grazing and silage ground, and most farms are seeing a significant improvement in grass growth through the final week of April.

Getting the most from grazed grass

Ardglass discussion group examining the grazing area on the dairy farm of Alec and Andrew Boyle.

A key aspect of good grassland management is effective grass budgeting, and this will be particularly important this year in order to maximise the full benefits of our lowest cost feed – grazed grass.

Good grassland managers consider the tasks associated with managing their grass as an integral part of their weekly schedule, and it remains a key aspect of their weekly workload throughout the grazing season. Effective grassland management requires sufficient time to gather the information, process the information and most importantly, act on the information. This process, if carried out routinely and effectively, has the potential to make a significant impact on the profitability of all farms. The early identification of grass surpluses and shortages is essential to avoid compromising sward and animal performance.

Grass measurement is critical

The grassland management discipline begins with monitoring the quantity of grass on the grazing platform, and this includes all the paddocks likely to be grazed.

Walking all the paddocks and determining the average grass cover in each paddock takes a small amount of time, relative to the time invested in feeding cows during the winter. However, grass measurement is essential if the grazing herd is to be provided with high quality grass all through the season. The quantity of grass present in each field can be determined by a number of methods including; plate meter, visually by eye, or by using a simple scale painted on the side of a wellington boot. No matter what method is used, using a single method all season, and keeping the number of individuals doing the assessments to a minimum, will help to improve the accuracy of the measurements.

Once all paddocks have been measured, the average farm grass cover can be calculated by multiplying the average yield of grass present in each paddock by its size (hectares) and dividing by the total area being grazed. Typically, target grass cover pre-grazing should be 3,200-3,500 kgDM per ha and this should be grazed to a residual of 1,500-1,800 kgDM per ha, which will leave the target average farm cover at 2,300 – 2,600 kgDM per ha.

Application in practice

The principles of grassland management are key for any forage-based milk producer and this is very clear from the farm of Alec and Andrew Boyle. This father and son team manage 230+ mainly spring calving cows on a grass-based system near Carrowdore, Co. Down. Cows on Alec and Andrew’s farm have been at grass during the day since 14th February and out full time since 26th February (weather permitting).

Andrew mainly deals with managing the grass, and the cows have been grazing well, despite difficult conditions at times during March. The entire grazing platform was grazed by mid-April, and by completing his weekly grass measurements, he will be able to assess the appropriate areas to graze and the correct time to reduce concentrate feed. To improve confidence and aid decision making with the grassland management on this farm, Alec and Andrew are members of a focused discussion group who meet once a month on each others farms. Unlike many discussion groups, the Ardglass group meet during the day time, and this allows them to focus on the grassland performance of the host farm, and challenge each other to improve this aspect of their businesses.

Are you a member of a discussion group? Is there the possibility of adapting some of your summer meetings into this format? The collective support available from within a group of like minded producers is important in building the confidence of each individual in their own ability and decision making, especially as improving grassland management can be a steep learning curve. Does your group discuss targets for grazing rotation length, supplementation at grass, pre- and post-grazing sward heights, and if not, why not!

GrassCheck – information to help plan your grazing management

To assist farmers with grass budgeting and general grazing management through 2008, GrassCheck – jointly funded by AgriSearch and DARD, is again monitoring grass growth rates throughout Northern Ireland this season. This year grass growth will be measured at six sites across Northern Ireland: Aghadowey, Antrim, Hillsborough, Loughgall, Portaferry and Fintona.

Grazed grass remains the cheapest feed for producing milk, yet this potential can only be fully achieved if high quality grass is continually offered to, and efficiently grazed by the herd. Each grazing season will inevitably involve challenging periods, but by frequent monitoring of the grazing area, and using the regional growth information from GrassCheck, informed and timely decisions can be made by grassland managers to ensure the risks associated with surpluses and/or shortages can be minimised.

May 2008

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