What can you do with unlifted swards?

With many acres of last year’s grass still lying rotting across Ulster, and wet weather conditions continuing, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) gives its advice on how to deal with unlifted swards.

It may not be what many will want to hear; however, the main message is to be patient and ensure that ground conditions are satisfactory whatever course of action is taken.

Advisors warn there is no point in causing more compaction or soil damage at this stage when ground conditions will eventually improve.

In some cases, they say grazing unlifted swards with sheep has caused more damage than good.

Here’s the official advice:

Assessing the situation

Sward assessment is a key starting point; the ratio of green leaf to dead material must be assessed.

This should be done based on the following questions:
  • Where swards have a large proportion of decaying leaf, the options for this are limited – can the material be grazed;
  • Is stock available that can utilise this material without causing animal health issues;
  • Should the poorest quality material, if harvested, be recycled as farmyard manure in an environmentally acceptable manner?


With tanks full, farmers also need somewhere to spread slurry.

Where heavy, unharvested dead covers are still on swards, splash plating 3,000gal of slurry per acre over them will not produce high quality grass for first cut silage.

Trailing shoe slurry spreading equipment will help to get slurry onto the soil surface under the grass canopy.

Grazing heavy covers

In some cases sheep have done more harm than good by tramping heavy covers into the ground, advisors warn.

This may have been due to letting sheep wander through the fields unchecked, rather than allocating a daily area and controlling the grazing.

Some points to consider:
  • Ideally, move stock daily or use two-day paddocks at most to ensure a rapid and thorough sward clean-off.
  • For heavy but grazeable covers, start by getting out young stock as soon as conditions permit and graze a relatively small area reasonably tightly to graze the sward quickly and effectively.
  • Low-yielding late lactation dairy cows could do the same job, but lighter young stock will do less further damage to swards and soil when ground conditions are marginal.

Unharvested silage swards

The biggest difficulties come for those whose second and third cuts were unable to be harvested on fields that are normally used for first cut as the quality of this year’s first cut could be substantially compromised.

Where a zero grazer is available, advisors suggest harvesting this poor quality forage as soon as ground conditions permit to let the sward regrow before first cut.

After zero grazing the sward can be assessed for damage and repaired as appropriate.

Care must be taken if feeding this zero grazed material due to its likely low dry matter content, poor nutritional value and the potential for soil contamination.

Some farmers are considering letting swards with a reasonable proportion of leaf grow on for an early first cut, accepting that quality will be relatively poor.

This poor first cut would not be suitable for milking cows, but could be fed to young stock and dry cows. More frequent later cuts would then be necessary to produce silage for milking cows.