Livestock farmers could cut costs and increase grass availability through better pasture management, according to experts speaking at a recent farm walk in Devon.

Piers Badnell, south-west extension officer at the Milk Development Council, told farmers that a better understanding of grass growth and a more businesslike approach to grazing would yield significant benefits.

“Grass is another forage, whether it’s in the clamp or on the root – make it work for you.”

Farmers could get more than half their milk yield from forage, resulting in considerable cost savings, but on average Promar costed herds managed just 33%.

To improve pasture management farmers have to understand how the ryegrass plant works, said Mr Badnell.

The bottom 4-5cm of the plant is where the sugar is stored and the growing point is located.

Grass should not be cut below this length, or it will damage the plant’s ability to regenerate itself.

After cutting or grazing the plant will put out its first leaf, which is vital to replenish sugar stores and consolidate root structure.

“Do not allow cattle to graze at this point or you will inhibit your own production,” said Mr Badnell.

Grass will also struggle to cope with drought.

Ryegrass only produces three leaves – with each taking between six and 30 days to develop, depending on the temperature.

The ideal stage to graze ryegrass is at the three-leaf stage, so a rotation will take anything from 18 days in May to 90 days in February.

“Do not allow grass to put up a seed head.”

Plant size will depend on nutrients, moisture and sunlight, and smaller plants should be grazed at a lower stocking rate.

Cattle should be turned onto pasture once it reaches about 2700kg DM/ha, said Mr Badnell. Investing in a plate meter is good, but it’s only a useful tool when you take 40-50 readings across a field to get a reliable dry matter estimate.

To prevent picky grazing and soil damage farmers should calculate the correct field size and stocking rate, so grass is grazed down to 1500kg DM/ha (a height of 4-5cm) in just one day.

“You don’t want to turn cows onto the same field for a second day as it will damage the grass and the soil.”

Grass should then be allowed to return to the three-leaf stage before further grazing or cutting.

“Rotational systems should match up with the grass physiology.

By making your grass work for you, you can increase grass yields by 20% and have a consistent, high quality supply.”

Farmers should aim to have each pasture at slightly different stage of growth, to enable a conveyor belt type rotation, believes Mr Badnell.

“When you measure each pasture’s dry matter you can then plan your system – you will know when you’ve got a surplus or deficit coming up, and can introduce buffer feeding slowly as required, rather than having a boom and bust scenario.”

Douglas Green, of farm business consultants Green & Kelly, said farmers should also test their grass’s nutritional value and take account of it in their ration.

“You wouldn’t feed your winter ration without measuring it, why do anything different with grass?”

To supplement low quality grass farmers should feed concentrates and only use other forages to make up for a lack of quantity.

“You decide how much cows are going to eat – you’re in control, not them.”

Host farmer Graham Vallis keeps 180 organic milking cows at Highdown Farm, Bradninch, Devon, and has created farm tracks and installed new water troughs to manage the rotational system.

He has 20 permanent paddocks and splits these with temporary fencing to move cows each day.

“Tracks are the key to good grazing and do not have to cost a fortune,” he said.

“You can get cows out to grass earlier and avoid poaching of gateways.”

Mr Vallis allowed natural erosion of walkways along the top of fields to create stone-based farm tracks and has used free river gravel on steeper areas.

“My tracks have hardly cost me anything.

See what resources you’ve got in your area – when you’re not in a hurry something will always turn up.”

olivia.cooper@rbi.co.uk