Dairylink: Value of early grass in a difficult spring

10th March 2016

Dairylink: Value of early grass in a difficult spring

Conail Keown highlights some management tips for grazing in this difficult spring. 

Grazing has been delayed across all Dairylink project farms, but some have managed to graze more than others.

While wet weather and ground conditions have prevented grazing, some project farms have taken advantage of dry parts of their farm and used simple tools like back fencing, grazing for just a few hours per day and being selective on which paddock to graze to help them through.

Using these tools has allowed feed costs to be reduced and helped keep the grass budget on track to be finished the first rotation by 12 April.

What value does spring grass have and can it reduce feed cost on farm?

Project farmer Charles Clarke, Bailieborough, Co Cavan, has had cows out grazing from 12 February. While every day has not been suitable to graze, he currently has 22% of the grazing platform grazed at the start of this week without any major damage to paddocks.

In February, he got 14 days of grazing using on/off grazing, just letting cows out for a few hours each day. In the first week of March, only three days have been suitable to graze.

Even with this patchy start to the grazing season, grass has a key role to play in reducing feed costs on this farm.

Cows go out with a good appetite and intake is budgeted at 6kg DM/cow grazed during the day. If cows returned to graze in the evening, he budgets another 5kg of grass DM, bringing the total grass DM intake to 11kg/cow.

Currently, a high-energy dairy meal is fed at 16% protein. When cows are grazing, 3kg of meal is fed per cow, and if conditions don’t allow grazing, cows remain inside with good-quality silage and 5kg of meal.

Each day Charles gets the cows out, his feed cost per cow stands at €1.63 (£1.26). This includes the cost of growing grass and 3kg of meal being fed.

The alternative of cows inside eating silage and 5kg of meal has a feed cost of €3.16 /cow (£2.44). This means for a 100-cow herd, feed costs can be reduced by €153/day (£118) by getting cows out to spring grass.

Analysis of spring grass shows grass D value to be 82%DM, protein content of 22% and energy of 12ME/kg DM. As a feed, spring grass is an excellent product. It is high in protein, very digestible and has high energy content.

Herd performance on the Clarke farm illustrates the value of spring grass, with cow condition holding very well on freshly calved cows (see Charles Clarke's herd performance in Table 1).

Farmer Focus – Charles Clarke, Bailieborough, Co Cavan

Charles has 112 spring-calving cows on the farm, with 65% calved at the start of this week. The grazing platform consists of 32ha of grassland, which is all accessible to the herd, with relatively well laid-out roadways and fencing to the paddocks.

The land type on Charles's farm is best described as a 50/50 mixture of some dry land and heavy wet clay land which requires careful management, especially around this time of year.

Opening grass cover on the farm measured 967kg DM/ha available, which was made up of covers in paddocks ranging from 500kg to 1,500kg DM/ha of available grass cover.

Spring grazing benefits

One of the key aims this spring for Charles is to increase the proportion of grazed grass in his cows' diet.

He is convinced that having his cows grazing early in the spring will help him make best use of the cheapest feed available to him on his farm, but it will also significantly improve grass quality for the herd in subsequent grazing rotations in the late spring and summer months.

This year, grazing started on 12 February. With the use of a network of farm roadways and multiple access points to paddocks, damage has been minimised.

Using back fences and getting the allocation of grass correct is vital. Charles quickly calculates herd demand and positions wires accordingly.

The key with early grazing is to ensure cows have an appetite built up before turn-out, even if this means holding cows after morning milking for an hour without access to silage.

Pointers for early spring grazing
  • Plan ahead for spring turnout – don't target the highest grass cover paddocks first.
  • Flexibility is crucial – grazing for a few hours only during the day, bringing cows inside when conditions change and having multiple paddock access points will minimise soil damage.
  • Getting grass grazed early will stimulate growth and will improve grass quality.
  • Good fertility in the soil will help early grass growth.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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