Examining 2019 grass growth performance across demonstration farms

Grazed grass is the cheapest source of energy for cattle and every blade that an animal eats represents a saving on feed costs and will have a positive impact on its liveweight gain.

Dairy calf-to-beef systems implementing high levels of grassland management – and maximising the length of the grazing season – have been shown to improve animal performance.

While the length of the grazing season is dependent on both farm location and weather conditions, there is scope for a grazing season ranging from 250 to 300 days across the country.

Since the commencement of phase two of the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme, the importance of providing excellent-quality grass in front of cattle, along with harvesting top-quality silage, has been promoted extensively.

In order to achieve high grass growth and utilisation, soil fertility issues are being addressed, along with having a paddock system in place to supply this quality, leafy grass.

Generally speaking, 2019 will be remembered as a good year for grass growth, with many farmers rebuilding silage supplies on farm.

Looking at the silage sample results taken from the farms enrolled on the programme, the quality of the silage was good, with dry matter digestibility (DMD) coming in at 71% for first cuts and 66% for second-cut silage on average.

Also Read: Green Acres: Analysing silage quality across all participating farms

Additionally, all of the programme farmers are now measuring grass – with a plate meter – on a weekly basis. This data is then uploaded to the PastureBase Ireland app, which automatically calculates the kg of DM/ha in each of the paddocks.

From grass budgeting, farmers can identify when growth will exceed demand, and make informed decisions from here in terms of which paddocks should be skipped and removed as high-quality silage or as a tool for identifying poorer-performing paddocks which need to be reseeded.

So, where are the Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme farmers at?

While grass measuring on beef and sheep farms on a national level is quite low, the participating farmers are now well versed on the importance of grassland management, and indeed the benefits of grass measuring.

Across all farms, the farmers grew in the region of 8-10t DM/ha throughout 2019. An average of 26 measurements were taken on farm, which will increase throughout 2020 – with the farmers now up to speed on the task; each farmer will aim for at least one weekly farm walk during the growing season.

Additionally, the highest-yielding paddock on each farm ranged from 10t DM/ha to 19.7t DM/ha, resulting in an average of 14.3t DM/ha – which is encouraging to see.

While there is scope for improvement on these farms, and indeed nationwide on drystock farms, there are many positives that can be taken from year one of the programme.

JP Hammersley, who farms in Latin, Co. Tipperary, grew 10t DM/ha on average on mostly all old pasture, where there is good infrastructure and good soil fertility.

Co. Meath representative, Aidan Maguire, has only one year’s experience in grass measuring and budgeting, yet he is managing his grass to a very high level.

The majority of silage is cut in the form of surpluses which is helping to maximise quality, while grazing ground is maintained at the highest quality throughout the grazing season.

Throughout 2019, average daily gain (ADG) at grass for all stock groups was good; Aidan is part of a grassland management discussion group based in Navan which has helped him develop his grassland management skills.

Michael Culhane, based in Co. Clare, the newest participant to the programme, has divided larger fields, using strip wires, into more manageable 1ha paddocks.

Water troughs which were previously located in the corner of fields have been moved to allow for more flexible grazing; additional water troughs have also been installed.

Finally, Peter Byrne’s farm is fully set up in terms of grazing infrastructure. Grass quality and availability was maximised through the regular grass walks completed in 2019; an average grass yield of 11.9t DM/ha was achieved last year.

This has also resulted in a relatively good level of ADG at grass for young stock.

Lessons learned and skills acquired throughout 2019 will now be put into action when favourable grazing conditions return. The participating farmers will build on these in 2020.

Saying that, some programme farmers – located in drier regions – have managed to get yearlings out to grass day and night; but, flexibility is key at this time of the year and a route back to the shed is always kept open.

In the picture (below), yearling steers were out grazing on Peter O’Hanrahan’s farm in Co. Kilkenny in late January.