Are we only playing at grassland management?

Some farmers, it might be argued, have been deluding themselves for generations – believing they are good grassland managers.

Yes; some certainly are. But it’s now apparent that large swathes of Ireland’s grassland areas are being under-utilised – to an alarming degree.

It turns out that some beef and sheep farmers are the worst culprits.

For the record, this set of circumstances has little to do with the amount of fertiliser used but everything to do with soil management procedures implemented on-farm.

But, strange as it may sound, this is a potentially good news story for Irish agriculture.

Just think, for example, of all that extra food we could produce if our grassland areas were managed more effectively.

Research staff at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) are undertaking a survey of 200 dairy and beef farmers in Northern Ireland to find out why so many of them are not making best use of grass.

According to AFBI’s Dr. Francis Lively, it is possible to produce up to 15t/ha of grass dry matter under Irish conditions.

However, this figure drops alarmingly to just 4t/ha on many beef farms. The equivalent figure on dairy units is in the region of 7.5t/ha.

While research does confirm that dairy farmers tend to use higher levels of fertiliser than their beef and sheep counterparts, this only accounts for a relatively small proportion of the performance gap between the two sectors.

Other factors, particularly soil pH and drainage, are much more significant contributors.

There is also an onus on beef farmers to put more emphasis on techniques such as paddock grazing. Set stocking systems are no longer fit-for-purpose. It’s all about maximising output from the land that is available to production agriculture.

Further good news for our ruminant sectors comes with the increasing recognition that efficient grassland farming is environmentally friendly.

This is undoubtedly the case when ruminant animals are achieving high levels of performance from grazed grass.

However, the opposite holds if grassland output is poor and animal performance levels are impacted upon accordingly.

There is also scope for stock to achieve high levels of compensatory growth when they are switched to diets comprising high-quality silage and concentrates during the winter months.

It’s all about increasing grass dry matter output; this is something that Irish livestock farmers will have to become increasingly conscious of – as they look to the future.