Lengthening the grazing season on a calf-to-beef system

Getting grass growth off to a good start this spring is going to be on top of the list of priorities on most farms in the coming weeks. Most farms will not be turning out their cattle for a few weeks yet, however putting a grazing and fertiliser plan in place should begin now.

AgriLand spoke with one of the earlier turnout farmers in the form of Aidan Maguire from Co. Meath, to get an insight into how he manages to achieve an early turnout date consistently.

Being a participant of the Teagasc Green Acres Calf-to-Beef programme, the farm rears 80 spring-born and 30 autumn-born calves which are sourced from local dairy farms.

The breeds range from Hereford and Angus males and females to dairy-bred male calves.

Aidan is targeting an early turnout for the 110 autumn-born 2019 and spring-born 2020 cattle which consist of steers and heifers. There will be two-year-old steers drafted for slaughter this spring, with Aidan also having the task of rearing purchased calves.

The plan for these spring-born heifers is to slaughter them off grass at 19-months-old, alongside the autumn-born steers which will be aged 24-months-old.

The spring-born steers will be slaughtered out of the shed the following December/January.


Managing grass this spring

In order to achieve better grazing efficiency from his grassland, Aidan has divided his 47ha fields into a total of 45 paddocks, with a permanent single-strand fencing.

Each paddock has an allocated water trough and there is the potential to divide his paddocks up even further using temporary strip wire.

As a way of monitoring growth, grass measuring and budgeting is completed every week of the grazing season. This allows for grass quality to be held to a high standard which will in turn improve animal nutrition and performance.

Roadways on the farm also aid the effective management throughout the grazing season. Last year the farm was able to begin its grazing season on January 24, as the young cattle were allowed to graze the paddocks during the day and then housed at night.

To avoid severe poaching, a fresh area was offered to the cattle each morning and they would have achieved a graze out down to 4cm by the time it came to housing that evening.

This practice enabled Aidan to lengthen his grazing season and maximise his grass utilisation. Commenting on his practices, he stated:

The type of stock being grazed does not matter. Good grassland management is basically the same for all farm types.

Having his cattle housed on November 13, the total grazing season reached a length of 294 days.

By lengthening the grazing season, the farm is able to achieve better weight gains at grass – while also being a cheaper source of feeding compared to housing.

Aidan is hoping to achieve a similar length in the grazing season for 2021, as he has began letting out his 110 cattle this week on January 21 for on and off grazing.

Fertiliser usage

The farm has been successful in having 56% of its soils at an adequate pH alongside having correct levels of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

There has been great progress made improving the efficiency of fertiliser used on the farm.

In order to get the best value for money, Aidan has moved away from using all calcium ammonia nitrate (CAN) based straight fertiliser on the farm and has introduced more urea and protected urea based fertilisers.

Taking a look at his progression, back in 2018 the source of chemical nitrogen fertiliser came from 100% usage CAN. The decision was made back in 2019 to reduce this spread of CAN in order to lower costs. This saw an introduction of 72% of urea being spread.

Last year, further changes were made as the farm’s chemical fertiliser usage was split between 25% protected urea, 27% CAN and 48% urea. The protected urea was used during the summer applications to replace the use of CAN which had been previously spread.

Commenting on his change, Aidan stated:

“I will probably always spread a certain amount of CAN-based fertiliser, since almost all of the compound fertilisers have CAN in them.

“Still, replacing the majority of nitrogen spread with a form that does the exact same thing is cheaper and better for the environment – it is an easy decision to make.”


Planning fertiliser this spring

The plan this spring is cover any grazed paddocks with a blanket spread of slurry – mainly through the use of splash plate spreading, while the use of low emission slurry spreading (LESS) will be applied from late April onwards.

It will be more or less the same as 2020 in terms of chemical fertiliser applications of urea and protected urea spread for this year.

As the spring progresses and soil temperatures rise, any paddocks that have not received a coat of slurry will receive an application of urea at a rate 25kg/ac.

By the end of March the plan is to spread more compound fertilisers such as 18-6-12 to maintain his P and K levels, no straight CAN will be spread.

Once Aidan has his maintenance P and K levels covered for his farm, he will be following on with an application of protected urea later in the summer.

Farmers should remember, the key to knowing what fertiliser to spread is by knowing what soil fertility levels your farm is at.

The first step of the grazing and fertiliser plan for most farms should be to take soil samples now before fertiliser and slurry spreading begins.