Grass advice: Where to now?

As dairy farmers, we are great at knowing our targets: 90% submission rate within 21 days of breeding start date; 90% in calf within the first six weeks of breeding; and an empty rate of <10%.

But, are you as good at acknowledging your strengths on a day-to-day basis?

The past two months have been particularly challenging in terms of fully feeding our cows and getting jobs done on-farm.

Usually after six-to-eight weeks things start to quieten down and you see more of your family and more of your bed. However, this hasn’t been the case this year.

On top of this, social media is becoming almost toxic with people slamming anyone that dares to put up anything positive online.

It’s easy to let things get on top of you and to stop going to discussion group meetings; you may use excuses like ‘I haven’t time’ or ‘I know what they’ll be talking about anyway’.

But, the act of leaving the farm is as important due to the benefits you will get from the sharing of information at a group meeting.

Sometimes just calling a good friend and having a chat about what you/they are doing – and if there’s anything to be done better – will work wonders.

Remember that employees are also having a tough time, as their working hours are high as well. And, if you’re stressed and in bad humour, you obviously won’t be a joy to be around.

Although stressed, try to appreciate the effort they are putting in and how much better the farm is for having them on board rather than struggling along by yourself.

If at all possible, bring them to every group meeting and Teagasc event possible. They will get cabin fever if on the farm full time. They will pick up things that you don’t and, therefore, the business will benefit too.

Nutrition

Low average farm cover (AFC) is an issue on most farms at present with regrowths far behind the ten-year average.

Usually a second rotation pre-grazing cover of 1,000-1,200kg/ha would be days away on early farms down south and in the north-east. But, this will be more than two weeks later this year.

Farms are feeding 5-6kg of concentrate, silage and as much grass as their budget will allow them to. This is relatively easy to manage; although very expensive.

The real issue on farms soon will be nutrition. For the first time, some farms will be feeding very high concentrate levels and will start the second rotation on low covers.

If pre-grazing covers are at the two leaf stage (<1,000kg/ha), then there is a huge possibility that there will be sub-clinical (or clinical) cases of acidosis over the next few weeks.

A farmer rang me last week who was feeding 9kg of meal (in the parlour). His protein was below 3% and fat was at 3.7%.

He had contacted his meal man, who had recommended he feed an additional 3kg of maize on top of the silage to address the ‘energy deficit’.

Some basics to be mindful of on assessing diet when using your milk quality results:

  • If protein is low (<3.3%) and fat is above 4%, it means that there is an energy deficit in the diet;
  • If protein is high and fat percentage is low (3.8-4.0%), cows are usually on low covers in the second rotation and fibre content of the diet is okay; but grass is very lush.
  • If protein and fat levels are low, it can mean one of two things:
    • There is an energy deficit in the diet;
    • Sub-clinical or clinical cases of acidosis are present.

If any of the above occurs in your herd, then talk to someone who understands basic animal nutrition; some sales people clearly don’t.

Your local advisor or discussion group will probably be your best starting point. If meal feeding levels are excessive (in this case the 4.5kg of meal per milking was a huge issue to freshly-calves cows), then meal feeding has to be spread out (e.g. feed some along with the silage and reduce the amount in the parlour).

In a lot of cases, reducing the meal is not possible as silage stocks are very low and grass growth is behind target.

Starting the second rotation changes the diet completely; we are going into slightly lower dry matter (DM) feed that is higher in protein and very digestible and, therefore, there is greater throughput through the rumen.

This is great as it increases dry matter intake (DMI) and increases milk output. However, if the meal in the diet is high in rapidly-degrading ingredients – such as maize, soya bean and wheat – this will cause huge issues for the rumen; there will not be sufficient dietary fibre to maintain normal rumen turnover.

If silage remains in the diet, it may be fine. But it is better to talk to your feed nutritionist (not your sales rep) about formulating a ration with less degradable ingredients – such as lower levels of maize, distillers, sugar beet – along with sufficient cal-mag, that will reduce/eliminate the risk of sub-clinical or clinical acidosis when silage is out of the diet but meal feeding remains high.

In a normal year, protein percentages will increase and fat percentages will decrease in the second rotation; owning to higher-quality feed.

The only farmers I meet that have very low fat percentages (around 3.5%) are those that are feeding high levels of meal or meal high in maize, wheat, etc. that don’t compliment the high-quality, lush grass.

If the meal is balanced appropriately, not fed at very high levels and the pre-grazing grass covers are above 1,300kg/ha, there will be no fibre deficit in the cows’ diet.

At the Ballyhaise open day last week, it was advised to calculate how much area remains in the first rotation and divide this by the number of days you need to get the first-grazed paddocks above 1,200kg/ha. When you can, then begin the second rotation.

This is easy to do and simplifies our management. ‘Adapt your attitude and change your management’ was printed on one of the boards. I thought this was brilliant – no dwelling on current deficits and have a plan and get on with it.

Fertiliser

The advice on nitrogen (N) is well documented, with upwards of 70 units of N recommended to be spread per acre by early April.

In a year such as this, I think that the ‘straight nitrogen’ talk is over played. When soil temperatures are low, root elongation is compromised; leading to lower growth rates.

grass
Image source: Shane Casey

If roots aren’t growing, the plant has limited access to soil P and K. We must therefore apply more chemical P and K to maximise growth rates rather than just dumping on bags of straight nitrogen in either nitrite (urea) or nitrate (CAN) forms.

Compound fertiliser, with lower levels of N, will grow you more feed in a cold weather spell. Look at the fields that received slurry earlier in the spring, they are growing much more grass than fields that got nitrogen only.

If you have nitrogen in the yard that you want to use up, consider getting enough compound fertiliser to use this rotation then go back to straight nitrogen in the next rotation.

Sulphur is also very important in spring to maximise growth rates. Finances will be tighter when this low growth rate snap comes to an end; but do not compromise on high-return investments, such as soil fertility and reseeding.

Where to now?

  • Maximise growth rates by achieving desired residuals where possible and applying compound fertiliser where needed;
  • Silage ground needs fertiliser applied now – 70 units of nitrogen, 20 units of P or 70 units of K plus 2,000 gallons for first-cut ground. High P or K fields will require less;
  • Weigh heifer calves once workload calms down. Follow Teagasc advice on weaning weight targets and vaccination protocols;
  • Acknowledge your strengths on a day-to-day basis. To have fully-fed cows during this difficult period is a job well done. Don’t fret about a lower peak yield than other years; everyone is in the same boat;
  • Adapt your attitude and change your management. Have a plan in place and stick to it;
  • If you see someone doing a good job, tell them. You might be the only good news giver they will meet that day.