Housing comes early as grazing conditions deteriorate

The wet weather of late is playing havoc on farms across the country. Farmers, especially those operating on heavier soils, have been forced to house cows.

A number of farmers in the counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Roscommon have opted to keep their cows in by day and night in recent days. In addition, ground conditions have also deteriorated rapidly in areas along the western seashore.

Many farmers are hoping that this move will only be necessary in the short-term and that cows will return to grass in the coming days.

Rainfall and soil temperatures

Data from Met Eireann shows that rainfall quantities have been running above 30-year average levels in a number of locations in recent days.

The worst affected areas include: Ballyhaise (203%); Gurteen (135%); and Mullingar (130%). In addition, 10cm ground temperatures are sitting at 11.9-13.9°; this is likely to see grass growth rates slow.

Furthermore, Met Eireann forecasts that a band of rain will move in from the Atlantic later this morning (Saturday) and will gradually move eastwards during the afternoon.

It also says that this rain will become persistent across the western half of the country by evening. However, it is expected to remain dry with sunny spells elsewhere.

Once this weather passes, a spell of dry weather appears to be on the cards. Met Eireann says that the last of the rain will clear eastwards on Sunday morning. But, there is a possibility that it will linger along the east coast for a time.

It also forecasts that Monday and Tuesday will be dry days with sunshine. But, outbreaks of rain and unsettled conditions are expected to return by the middle of next week.

Making the most of grass

Work carried out by Teagasc shows that maximising the proportion of grass in cows’ diets is key to boosting profitability at farm level.

Therefore, it’s important to keep cows out at grass for as long as possible. However, this shouldn’t come at a cost in terms of damaging your paddocks with poaching.

Farmers who still have their cows out at grass, and are finding that ground conditions are deteriorating, should focus on grazing their drier paddocks first. Focusing on these paddocks will allow you to make the best use of grass and keep poaching to a minimum.

It may be necessary to skip some of the heavier soil-type paddocks for a couple of days until weather conditions improve next week. This will ensure that a good clean-out is achieved when these paddocks are grazed.

If a paddock is prone to damage during a time of wet weather, the use of 12-hour grazing blocks can keep the amount of damage done to a minimum.

If it’s too difficult to carry out the above, the use of on-off grazing should be given serious consideration.

On-off grazing is a very simple tool and takes advantage of the cow’s natural ability to graze. To maximise the use of grass in the cow’s diet and, in turn, increase the profitability of dairy enterprises, Teagasc recommends the use of on-off grazing during wet weather conditions.

According to Teagasc, it is an excellent way to allocate grass to cows during inclement weather conditions.

Two bouts of three-hour grazings after morning and evening milking, provided adequate grass is given, can eliminate the need to supplement cows with silage while indoors.

Is there adequate grass on your farm?

Recent figures from Teagasc PastureBase show that grass growth rates on Irish farms are sitting 40-53kg of grass dry matter (DM) per hectare per day.

During the week ending September 21, farms in Connacht had an average growth rate of 40kg/day. Ulster farmers grew 41kg/day, and those in Leinster and Munster produced 48kg/day and 53kg/ day respectively.

Image source: Teagasc PastureBase

Ideally, farms with a stocking rate of 2.5LU/ha should have 400kg of grass per cow by October 1. In addition, farmers should aim for a cover of 1,000kg/ha and a rotation length of 40 days at the beginning of next month.

However, this very much varies from farm to farm and on the system being operated. As the stocking rate increases, the targeted cover/cow figure will also decline. Farms stocked at 3LU/ha should target a cover of 380kg/cow and those stocked at 3.5LU/ha should aim for 335kg/cow.

Also, the average farm cover (AFC) of these farms needs to be considered; for farms stocked at 3LU/ha and 3.5LU/ha the AFC should be 1,150kg/ha and 1,175kg/ha respectively by October 1.

If you are failing to hit these targets it may be necessary to introduce some form of supplementation – whether that’s meal or silage – to increase the quantity of grass present on your farm.

It must be noted that these guidelines are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and farmers operating on heavier soils, or those who have been forced to house cows, may need to change the targets accordingly.

Typically speaking, in a good year, this means farmers operating on heavier-type soils need to pull the targets back by one week.