‘Not measuring grass is like driving a tractor without diesel’

Measuring grass is key to the success of Sean Daly’s dairy farm and he likened it to driving a tractor without diesel – It can’t be done properly without it.

Daly was one of the farmers selected by Teagasc to host a series of Spring Grazing Farm walks, which aim to show farmers how to make the best use of spring grass.

Daly opened the gates of his farm to over 60 farmers on Wednesday to allow them to see how he has managed with difficult grazing conditions and slow growth rates this spring.

Sean Daly (centre) speaking to farmers at the farm walk held on his farm.

He milks a herd of 136 Holstein Friesian spring-calving dairy cows on his 50ha farm in Banagher, Co. Offaly and he said that a wet February and March made grazing management difficult on his farm.

Daly first started measuring grass 12 years ago and he said despite the “funny looks” it has helped him improve the management of his dairy herd and to make better use of grass on his farm.

Work carried out by Teagasc shows that each extra day at grass is worth €2.70/cow in increased profits and so far this year Daly’s cows have been out grazing for about 40 days.

Last year, he said the farm grew over 15t of grass/ha.

Managing difficult grazing conditions

“The cows were first turned out to grass in early February and they had to be housed during the first week of March due to heavy rain,” he said.

He took the decision to house the cows during the first seven days of March to avoid damaging the paddocks, as some of the paddocks on the farm are quite prone to poaching, he said.

The paddocks on the farm are a mixture of cley and peaty soils.

I poached paddocks with cows a couple of years ago and I had to reseed after it. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Paddock with a peaty soil which is prone to poaching.
Paddock with a peaty soil which is prone to poaching.

He also said that used on-off grazing for most of February, due to wet weather conditions.

On-off grazing involves letting the cows out to grass for a three-hour period and housing them for the remainder of the time.

Research carried out in Teagasc Moorepark shows that the cows are able to eat most of their grass requirement during this three-hour period, without having a negative impact on milk fat or protein.

However, he said conditions have picked up in recent weeks and the cows are out full time for the last two weeks.

He also said he is now using 24-hour breaks, as the ground has dried out and the cows are not doing as much damage.

Previously, Daly used 12-hour allocations to reduce the damage done by freshly calved cows on paddocks prone to poaching.

Current grass levels

Housing the cows in March pushed back the area of the milking platform grazed, he said and he now hopes to finish the first rotation on April 14, which is a week later than previous years.

The current farm cover is 818kg DM/ha which will be enough grass to see the cows through to mid-April, he said. But grass growth rates remain slow, with a daily growth rate of 7kg DM/ha.

Daly was optimistic that growth rates would pick up over the next couple of weeks, as he needs the grazed paddocks to grow 30kg of DM/day to have enough grass for his cows after April 14.

I would be confident that I will not run out of grass. Once it gets to April 1 grass usually takes off.

“If grass really starts to move I can bring in other stock to deal with surpluses, I walk the farm every Monday morning to see how growth is looking,” he said.

Daly said that bringing in pit silage to the cows diet would be the last resort if growth rates did not meet the requirements of the herd.

“There are 31 replacement heifers that can be moved off the grazing block to another farm.

“There are also 30 top quality bales of silage which were made last June that can be used to buffer feed cows if growth remains slow,” he said.

Fertiliser applications

The majority of the paddocks are index 3 and 4 for Phosphorous and Potassium, he said and so he has focused on spreading urea this spring.

He said that approximately 50% of the farm has received 48 units urea/ac two weeks ago and he plans on spreading the remainder of the farm at the same rate next week.

Teagasc research shows that grass does not start to grow until soil temperatures reach six degrees Celcius, the soil current soil temperatures on Daly’s farm is seven degrees Celcius.

Daly also spreads slurry after the cows have grazed and 57% of the farm has received 3,000 gallons of slurry/ac to date.

He said that the wet conditions this spring made it difficult to spread slurry and so he took down the electric fences between the paddocks to make it easier to spread slurry and to reduce the amount of turning in each paddock.


Expansion plans

The Offaly-based farmer said he plans on increasing cow numbers to 150 next year, as he has the ground and the grass-growth capacity to do so.

Currently, he said all of the replacement heifers are kept on the farm during the year.

But, he has plans to contract the heifers out from the spring of 2018, which would allow him to increase cow numbers to 200 head.

2016 born calves on Sean Daly's farm.
2016 born calves on Sean Daly’s farm.

Farm facts:
  • Stocking rate: 2.5LU/ha
  • Cow numbers: 136
  • Current farm cover: 818kg DM/ha
  • Finish first rotation: April 14
  • Cows calved in six weeks: 80%
  • Milk protein: 3.36%
  • Milk fat: 4.23%
  • Concentrate input: 3kg/cow/day
  • Herd EBI: €160