Are you capitalising on your grass growth?

By Cathal Bohane, Head of InTouch Nutrition

Calving is in full swing on most farms, and the focus has now turned to the beginning of the grazing season.

The exceptionally mild beginning of winter has led to above-average grass growth rates in many areas; some paddocks that were closed early are showing very grazable covers, and farm covers are shaping up to be 100-200kg above average for this time of year.

This increase has been slightly tempered by the arrival of some frost and snow, which has checked grass growth and made ground conditions slightly more difficult to deal with in some areas.

Nevertheless, we should capitalise on this widespread grass growth, not only to reduce supplementary feed usage but also to achieve higher-quality swards in further rotations.

While some are not worried, as the grass might replenish silage stock, being forced to graze poorer-quality swards later will negatively impact solids and body condition – and even fertility.

Depending on your grazing start date and land type, 30% of the grazing area should be eaten by the end of February and 60-70% by the middle of March for those completing a spring rotational planner and should be fully completed by early April – or the so-called “magic day”, when supply equals demand.

Additionally, the allocation of grass for cows should not be based purely on grass availability but also on the requirements of the cow. We must be conscious of the fact that systems and cows on farms across Ireland are all unique and, as such, using a one-size-fits-all approach for feed allocation is ill-advised.

Eliminating silage and reducing concentrate might be suitable for lower-producing animals, for instance, but will not work for higher-producing animals.

We are also dealing with and must manage the impacts of the headache that was last summer, which left many farms tight on forage stocks.

A number of other recommended processes are outlined below:

  • Update your feed budget, as you now know more about grazing dates and feed stocks.
  • Act immediately on shortages – not saving 10kg today will mean having to save 20kg tomorrow.
  • If you have a group of cows calved, grazing should begin based on the weather and grass availability.
  • Fresh cows and heifers should have access to feed inside for at least 48 hours before they have access to grass, as this will allow for and guarantee a higher intake level.
  • Higher-producing cows, while still able to graze, should be adjusted to grass at a slower rate. These animals need a more stable, guaranteed intake and should not be without feed for more than a few hours as a result of available shortages or weather conditions.
  • Base your grazing hours on grass intake and availability – don’t leave cows in a bare paddock just because it’s a lovely day.
  • Base your diet on your peak yield, not on what your cows are averaging currently. Also, pay attention to the top 20% of your cows. While they might not peak until six weeks post-calving, cows are producing 90%+ of peak milk yield after 10 days on milk.
  • To determine dry matter intake (DMI), divide your peak yield by 1.5. For instance, a 27-litre cow will have a DMI of 18kg.
  • Measuring grass and concentrate usage will allow you to calculate the shortfall, or the amount of supplement required. This will also help you avoid high substitution rates and wasted feed.

For those who are continuing to feed forages but are low in supply, here are some other options:

  • In some places, other forages, such as beet, are still available to extend or to pit for later use.
  • Cows are the most efficient at responding to concentrates in early lactation; 1kg will replace 4-5kg of silage.
  • Forage replacers like palm kernels and hulls can be regarded as super-quality silage – and might even be more cost-effective. Not only will you spare your silage, but you will also see better production. Adding 2-3kg of these can replace 10-15kg of silage, but beyond this level, you lose the “fill” that comes from silage.
  • Ration the straw and silage available for dry cows. Running out of straw and adding concentrates or forage extender will affect intake and body condition, unless monitored.
  • Management of silage pits, beet and other products are also key as usage is reduced and the weather gets milder to avoid mould, heating, or sprouting which can be detrimental to animals.
  • When using other ingredients, have someone qualified balance your diet for fibre, forage and minerals.

Further information

Feel free to contact InTouch on: +353 (0)59-910-1320 to speak to a nutritionist who can answer your questions; or email: [email protected].