May was a challenging month for dairy farmers on heavy farms in Ireland’s higher rainfall areas. Rainfall for the month was well above the long-term average in most places e.g. 186% of normal in Mullingar.

There were several episodes of prolonged heavy rain through the month, leading to a sudden & rapid deterioration in ground conditions. Average growth rate across these farms was much less than expected as the wetter paddocks became waterlogged in conjunction with lower than average sunshine levels. Unfortunately, this has become rather common in the month of May in recent years.

The standard dairy grassland management advice for May has been to close a large area of the milking platform for a late May silage cut, creating a high stocking rate of 4.5 or 5 cows/ha on the remainder of the platform. This high grazing pressure will create an 18-20 day rotation and normally results in excellent grass quality.

However, as weather patterns appear to becoming less predictable and more volatile, many farmers are adapting their previously rigid management practices to insulate their business against a difficult May. One farmer I spoke with declared that ‘we have to stay in spring mode here until early June most years’. This farmer won’t allow his milking platform stocking rate to exceed 3.6 cows/ha during May.

Grass demand was a mere 54kg DM/ha, but growth dipped below this during after the wetter periods of the month. While this will appear very conservative, it gives him the flexibility of always having dry paddock options on the really wet days. Grass quality is maintained by aggressively baling surplus grass during the spikes of better growing conditions. Assuming normal summer conditions for June, July and August, this farmer remains confident of accumulating enough winter feed from the milking platform and outside blocks of ground.

On one particularly wet day in late May, he was faced with the option of either housing the herd or strip grazing his growing silage crop for 24 hours. He chose the latter and said: “there is rarely a year that we don’t have to do a bit of that to keep the cows grazing”.

Under such conditions in May, his priority is to ensure that the cows are well fed. They are at peak milk production and in the early weeks of the breeding season. If Grass Dry Matter is low due to wet weather, up to 3kg of concentrates are fed to ensure energy intakes are maintained. His next priority is reducing sward or soil damage due to poaching. His normal focus on high grass utilisation takes a back seat until ground conditions improve.

Brian Costello is a dairy farmer bear Boyle, Co. Roscommon. He has has expanded his farm from 80 to 200 cows. He also works part-time as a dairy consultant/discussion group facilitator, specialising in dairy expansion. Brian can be contacted via e mail on [email protected] or on Twitter @BrianCostello_