‘20% more grass can be produced by correct management’

As the winter conditions continue, the thought of turning cattle out to grass may be at the very back of farmers’ minds. Many farmers are busy sourcing extra fodder supplies for their stock, as they remain indoors.

However, hopefully this inclement weather will disappear and farmers will be able to start grazing pastures. Every blade of grass that an animal eats represents a saving on winter feed costs and will have a positive impact on its liveweight gain.

Grazed grass is the cheapest feed and suckler farmers must maximise the length of the grazing season and the quality of the sward. The biggest challenge is getting all grass grazed when ground and weather conditions remain problematic.

According to Teagasc, every day at grass is worth €2/LU (livestock unit). For example, if 60 extra days at grass are captured for 50LU, then it’s worth €6,000.

A paddock system is key to grass growth, quality and utilisation. In Ireland, the national average grass growth on drystock farms stands at 4.5t/ha.

Speaking at a recent farm walk, Teagasc’s Christy Watson outlined that 20% more grass can be produced by correct management.

He said: “Grass needs to be grazed to the desired residual of about 4cm and then allowed to recover. If a fourth leaf has the chance to grow, poor material starts to grow at the base of the plant and, therefore, quality is reduced.

“In the peak grass growing period, a grass plant is producing a new leaf roughly every seven days; this is why we work off a 21-day rotation.

“It all comes down to two things – growing grass and maintaining grass. It is very important to get both right,” he added.

Paddock system

Christy also explained the importance of paddock grazing systems. On this, he said: “It is impossible to manage grass correctly without using paddocks. It is just as applicable to drystock farms as it is on dairy farms.

“If you are in a 20-25ac field – and you have a small number of animals in that field – you are not going to be able to manage it. Stock will graze the re-growths and then you end up with very poor growth and quality.”

Farmers should work off a 21-day rotational grazing system, moving animals every three days. This will improve the quantity and the quality of the sward.

“By doing this, every mouthful of grass that an animal eats will be of top-quality. Animals will also fill themselves a lot quicker, as their intakes will be increased,” he explained.

Christy also outlined that paddock size is a critical factor in good grassland management. The use of temporary reels and fences can be used to facilitate a faster clean out. These fences can also be used as back fences or to sub-divide the paddock.

He continued: “When farmers are laying out paddocks, they need to work out how much grass is needed. From this, the paddock size can be worked out based on the number of cattle the farmer has.

“Six or seven paddocks per grazing group is recommended. For example, a group of 50 animals, weighing 450kg, require a paddock measuring 1ha in size. They will be able to graze this to the desired residual in three days,” Christy explained.

Larger numbers; less groups

Christy continued: “The most important thing is not to be afraid to put large numbers into smaller paddocks; be prepared to allow decent numbers into paddocks that they can go in and do a job.

Reduce the numbers of groups; increase group size; it works. Not too many dairy farmers with 100 cow herds have five groups of 20.

Furthermore, all fences do not have to be permanent. Many farmers depend solely on reels; five or six reels and they have a paddock system.

The positioning of water troughs is also critical. If troughs are located at one end of a paddock, stock will have to travel back across grazed pastures to get access to water. If troughs are strategically positioned, farmers can sub-divide paddocks easier.