‘Levels of grass utilisation are disappointingly low on beef and sheep farms’

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) saw large crowds for its ‘More from Grass’ event yesterday, June 20, in Loughgall, Co. Armagh.

Key areas addressed on the day included: soil nutrient deficiencies; soil compaction; choice of perennial ryegrass (PRG) variety; alternative grasses; and grass budgeting.

Dr. Sinclair Mayne, Chief Executive of AFBI, highlighted how average levels of grass utilisation are “disappointingly low” – 7.5t DM/ha on dairy farms and 4.1t DM/ha on beef and sheep farms.

“The best farmers in Northern Ireland (NI) are utilising 12t DM/ha,” Mayne explained.

Mayne also said that for every extra 1t DM/ha utilised, the margin over feed costs increases by £334/ha (€378/ha) on dairy farms and £204/ha (€231/ha) on beef farms.

‘Ideal soil structure’

“A granulated soil structure is crucial to fertile soils,” Dr. John Bailey, AFBI, explained.

“If soil is compacted, it will be of a platy nature and you will see blue-grey mottling. You can assess the soil yourself by digging a test-pit and examining the soil with your hands.

“Severe compaction can be reduced by loosening in optimal soil conditions, through spiking or sub-soiling,” Bailey said.

Management strategies to reduce the risk of soil damage:
  • Match the operation to the nature and condition of the soil;
  • Reduce axle loads – ideally less than 5t;
  • Reduce tyre pressure;
  • Use a controlled traffic system within fields where appropriate;
  • Avoid grazing in wet conditions.

‘More beef and lamb from grass’

The quality of grass is very important when trying to produce beef and lamb from grass, according to AFBI’s Dr. Francis Lively.

Lively added that the most important unit for measuring grass quality is the energy content.

“Grass that is leafy will have 12MJ/kg DM (megajoules/kg DM), compared to stemmy grass, which will only have 8-9MJ/kg DM,” Lively concluded.

AFBI grass utilisation
Dr. Debbie McConnell, AFBI

‘Get your wedge in order’

“Grazing appropriate covers are important for utilising grass,” stated Dr. Norman Weatherup of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE).

“If the entry height is too high, it is harder to graze-out.

“Stock should enter swards with a pre-grazing sward height (PGSH) of 10cm, or a cover of 3,000kg DM/ha, and exit with a cover of 1,600kg DM/ha, or a 4cm PGSH.

“If there is too much grass on your farm, you should act appropriately. This could include baling the surplus grass or increasing the stocking rate,” Weatherup concluded.

‘The 3-3-3 rule’

“A three-leaved plant; operating off a three-week rotation; and grazing out the paddock in three days is key for successful grazing,” CAFRE’s Ian McCluggage said.

However, during times of high growth rates, such as now, McCluggage believes that rotation length needs to be shortened to 18 days.

“Farmers keep turning out livestock at the wrong time of the year,” McCluggage stated.

“I believe that farmers should have livestock out grazing earlier in the spring if possible, when grass is most nutritious, and to start housing that bit earlier in late-autumn or early-winter, when grass isn’t as nutritious,” concluded McCluggage.

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