Many dairy farms across Northern Ireland are reporting a grass shortage, as persistent cold temperatures and low rainfall challenge growing conditions, writes Michael Verner, CAFRE dairying adviser based in Newry.
Grass Check shows that grass growth rate is well below the previous 10-year average and, as expected, this is having a major impact on grazing.
With lower-than-average rainfall recorded in the past month and little expected for the incoming week, a soil moisture deficit may also be having an impact on grass growth in the east of the province.
Weekly grass walks
It is important to be proactive, walk the grazing platform weekly to check what grass is available for grazing and to assess re-growths.”
A grass budgeting tool can help with calculating both your herd’s grass demand and grass availability and to identify any shortfalls. Average farm cover should not be allowed to fall below 2,100Kg DM/ha.
You could consider increasing the size of the grazing area by bringing some silage ground into the rotation.
If poor growth persists, you might be forced to feed silage shortly after conserving it, so it makes sense to graze some now and cut the rest. However, be careful not to graze too much of your potential winter fodder supply.
Furthermore, aim to target the best forage to the most productive animals on the farm. Milking cows should continue to have access to grass. Besides, young stock could be held in the house for longer and continue to be fed last year’s silage.
It would be wise to remove dry cows from the grazing platform and to feed them silage.
With ground conditions favourable, consider grazing higher covers or heavier parts of the farm. Pre-cutting can help with utilisation of heavier covers and encourage dry matter intake.
You should adjust concentrate supplementation rates to take account of your forage situation. M+ rates in computerised milking parlours should be reduced based on grass supply and forage supplementation.
Continue to monitor milk yields and quality, dry matter intakes, and oestrus behaviour to ensure the diet meets the cows’ energy demands.
If grass silage is available, feeding 6 to 8kg DMI of silage will halve the herd’s grass demand. Avoiding prolonged periods in one field will also ensure faster re-growths.
Where possible, cows should be grazed in 12-hour grazing blocks and fence off re-growths with a back fence as soon as possible.
Filling the dry matter intake shortfall
If grass is limited and silage on-farm is not available, you can consider other options for filling the dry matter intake shortfall.
These include the purchase of grass/maize/whole-crop silage or dry feeds such as soya hulls or sugar beet pulp, purchased on a value for money basis.
In the short term, you may have to spend money on feed. However, the payback in performance may be worth many times that amount later in the year if it enables cows to reach peak yield, achieve good fertility performance and maintain body condition.
Milk price is expected to be higher than last year through the springtime, ensuring that it should be profitable to feed additional bought in dry matter and maintain milk yield if necessary.
Other more radical decisions may have to be made if slow growth persists, but for now, it is important to take action to meet any potential feed gap on the farm.