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Dealing with poor growth during a drought

The contrast in weather conditions, from the wettest February on record to the weather we are currently experiencing, couldn’t be more significant.

Grass Check sites in the south-east have reported total May rainfall of as little as 11-15mm compared with the five-year Northern Ireland average May rainfall of 88mm.

Across Northern Ireland as a whole, May rainfall in 2020 totalled just 42 per cent of the 1981-2010 average.

Grass Check shows average growth is well below the previous 10-year average. There has been a major impact on grazing already and it’s now likely to have serious implications on winter fodder stocks – especially in the east of the province.

Practical tips

Conail Keown, a Knowledge Service Advisor at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) has offered a few practical tips that can be considered in combating the problem.

He said: “Firstly, you should target the best forage to the most productive animals on the farm. Youngstock can be fed outside with poorer quality feeds and supplemented with purchased fibre sources – such as soya hulls, nutritionally improved straw, purchased or straw.”

“Also, continue to sow fertiliser on the grazing rotation. This can be sowed ahead of the cows on paddocks to allow for more moisture in the sward at sowing. If fertiliser is still visible on the top of the ground from the last application – then stop sowing.”

“The pre-cutting of grazing paddocks in this weather can lead to very high dry matter grass and will mean that cows will drink additional water. This practice will also lead to lower exiting covers and slower recovery of the sward.”

“Therefore, 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.”

“You should also bring additional grazing area into the rotation – but be careful not to graze your potential winter fodder supply – and avoid grazing very low covers in short rotations. Topping should be stopped so that there is some cover on paddocks which may help to shade new re-growth.”

“In addition, dry cows off early at the end of lactation and remove them from the grazing platform. Then, sell surplus stock – cows that have been earmarked for culling, surplus youngstock or beef animals.”

“Irrigating your grassland may require a water abstraction licence. It takes 22,200 gallons applied per acre to be equivalent to 25mm of rain. And, feed mixed rations twice per day in warm weather to fully housed cows to ensure silage remains fresh.”

Milk yields

“Milk yields should also be monitored continually as should dry matter intakes, concentrate feed levels and oestrus behaviour. If changes are required to address problems, then make them quickly to maintain milk yields and herd profitability.”

“On farms where grass growth is much reduced, source additional forage locally or purchase fodder replacement type rations. Compare value for money based on dry matter, energy and protein content.”

“Wholecrop cereals purchased from arable farmers may be a possibility for reducing the winter fodder gap but be careful to assess the quality of this and its yield. Ideally, purchase this type of crop by the tonne rather than per acre to ensure it is value for money.”

“Half grass demand by feeding 6-8kg DMI of silage and work with 12-hour grazing blocks so ensuring the maximum amount of time for regrowth.”

“Slurry should only be applied with care in extremely dry conditions. Light coatings of watery slurry should be applied with trailing shoe/hose if possible. This can be done when there is some grass cover rather than applying to recently cut swards. Again, continually monitor the situation and take action early.”

“In fact, it is essential that action is taken sooner rather than later to ensure a grass shortage now does not become a fodder shortage for your herd in the coming winter. Smaller changes made now and implemented over a longer period can mount into a substantial saving in the amount of forage required by the herd.”

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