With just four per cent of the average April rainfall this year, grazing conditions on farms are excellent at the moment. And, as a result dairy farmers have been able to take advantage of the cheapest feed available.

However, there is still a big variation across the country in the quality of both grass and as a result grazing management.

Conail Keown, a Dairying Development Adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) said: “Those who got cows out early and have now established a wedge of grass on their grazing blocks are in a good position in terms of grazing and grass management.

“While on other farms where turnout was delayed and pre-grazing covers were in excess of 3500kgDM/ha resulting in poor utilisation, there was a drop off in milk quality and lower production from grazed grass.”

In counties Fermanagh and Tyrone the mild weather has created perfect grazing conditions. Meanwhile, parts of counties Antrim, Down, Derry and Armagh are beginning to show signs of moisture deficit in soil with grazing regrowth slowing down.

Conail Keown added: “Dr Kathryn Huson manages the GrassCheck project, run by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and (AFBI) AgriSearch and has commented that current on-farm readings for soil moisture range from three centibars on one farm in Tyrone and up to 200 centibars on a County Down farm with shallow, free draining soils.

“The majority of farms in Antrim, Armagh and Down are showing higher readings, meaning grass growth rates are likely to be restricted by the soil moisture deficit. The higher the reading, the more likely that grass growth will be significantly reduced in the current conditions, impacting on yield potential.

When the rain comes then grazed grass will once again play a pivotal role in controlling feed costs on farms across Northern Ireland over the next three to four months.

“After all it is the competitive advantage for milk producers in Northern Ireland.  While purchased feed is an important requirement on all dairy farms, the majority of milk is produced from grazed grass or conserved forage. It is vital therefore that we get the management of grass and grazing correct in order to maximise its potential.

“So, the question is, have you got the skills set to capitalise on this and what can be done immediately on your farm to improve grass growth and utilisation?”

The key to constant supply of high quality leafy grass is maintenance. The simple task of walking the grazing block weekly and measuring grass can help meet this challenge. Eliminating the fluctuation in pre-grazing yields and problems of not enough or too much grass on the farm. The list of benefits a dairy business can expect from starting to measure grass can be quite extensive.  Firstly, you can take the guess work out of grass management and then know when to start the second rotation. The process will also identify surplus grass for cutting as well as identifying grass deficits when buffer feed or additional meal is required. Good management will also help farmers react to rapidly changing grass supply on farm, reduce cost in a volatile milk market and maintain and improve grass quality.

Grazing management was a topic at a recent Ardglass Business Development Group discussion conducted as video conference because of the current Covid-19 restrictions.

Conail McKeown said: “The focus was very much on grass and the grazing conditions each of the members were experiencing. Even within the group the variation in grass performance was remarkable, proving the point that no two farms are the same and require different degrees of management.

The dairy herd at Conway's farm at Ardglass
The dairy herd at the Conway’s farm at Ardglass, Co Down, is in the second rotation of the 2020 grazing season.

“Peter and Niall Conway’s farm is situated on the east side of County Down just outside the village of Strangford. So far this month only three per cent of the average April rainfall has landed in the area so the farm is starting to show signs of moisture deficit with grass growth slowing down.

 “The Conway’s manage 380 spring calving cows on the farm. Calving started on February 1, with cows progressing to grass as they calved from February 6. Fifty per cent of the herd calved in the first eleven days.”

The herd is now nearing the end of the second rotation of the grazing area in what are excellent conditions.

Niall Conway said: “Grass regrowth has been on target so far with cows currently going into pre-grazing covers of 3100kgDM/ha.  Early nitrogen application has helped us get to this stage on the farm, however I do see growth rates slowing down in recent days.”

Conail McKeown continued: “Dr Debbie McConnell from AFBI also makes the point that moisture deficit similar to what the Conway’s are experiencing, results in reduced or very limited uptake of nutrients by the grass plant and subsequently less grass growth.

“Nitrogen applied on the Conway farm started with the first application of 29kg/Ha urea on February 3.  The second application of 58Kg/Ha was on March 1 when moisture was not an issue, and a third application of 29Kg/Ha on March 20 along with some slurry applied in mid-February takes the nitrogen total to 125 Kg/Ha across the grazing block.

“The grass demand on the farm is currently at peak and breeding will start this week, we have started measuring grass twice per week in an attempt to manage the drop off in grass supply. Normally grass supply would be ahead of demand on the farm with surplus made into silage, instead this year we may have to increase meal feeding or introduce a buffer feed of silage to reduce grass demand.”