Irish debate grazed
Dairy discussion groups are taking off in Ireland where
they are viewed as an
excellent vehicle for
Sue Rider joins the first
meeting of a group set up in
Co Meath. Emphasis was
on use of autumn grass
DOES grazed grass have a place in the diet of autumn calvers or does it only get in the way?
This was the question posed to 15 dairy farmers, meeting for the first time as a discussion group run by Irish advisory service Teagascs specialist discussion group adviser Matt Ryan.
He was keen to encourage debate on topical issues that might affect the business in the coming month with the overall aim to improve farm profit.
But he stressed that his role was one of facilitator rather than expert. "Im there to generate discussion between group members – each of which is an expert in their own right."
Most of the group, meeting at the 243ha (600-acre) all grass farm run by brothers Gerry, Sean, and Seamus Macaffrey, at Kilskeer, Kells, were producing milk for the liquid market given their proximity to Dublin. Unlike most dairy farmers in Ireland who produce for manufacturing and can calve in spring to maximise production off grass, liquid milk means calving in autumn as well. Milk prices tend to be higher to cover the costs of producing in winter.
But Mr Ryan pointed out that the spring calving herds which placed greater reliance on grazed grass were more efficient. For this reason, he was keen to encourage members present to make better use of autumn grass.
"I realise we cant support high yields on grass alone at this time of year – but shouldnt we keep some in the diet for as long as possible?" asked Mr Ryan. Only one farmer at the meeting felt this thinking was along the right lines.
"Im totally convinced of the value of autumn grass; I graze cows until early December, aiming to turn out again by Feb 28." His total production costs come to less than 10p/litre.
More evidence for the benefits of out of season grass came from research carried out at the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland, Hillsborough, said Mr Ryan.
Grazing autumn calvers for three hours a day between Oct 26 and Nov 26 – compared with no grazing – earnt an extra 74p a day profit; for the spring calvers having grass in the diet increased profits by 94p a day.
"Im not advocating dispensing with silage and concentrates but showing the importance of having some grass in the diet. After all, its an extra £1 a day in your pocket," explained Mr Ryan.
Compelling economics, but how do you get high yielders to eat autumn grass, farmers asked. "Its very hard to bare paddocks at this time of year – grass is sour," said one. "If we made cows clear out paddocks wed get a massive drop in milk."
Mr Ryan didnt dispute that. "Productive animals shouldnt be forced to clean out paddocks in October – bring in another mob, such as dry cows, to do that. But when grass has been managed well throughout summer/early autumn, cows will graze it later in the season.
"The difficulty is that from late August were not paying much attention to the grazing fields.
"Should we not go in and do some sort of manicuring job late August/September – top or cut – to clean out the sward to improve quality for late season grazing?"
But he warned that it was important to ration October grass to ensure there would be enough to allow early grazing next spring.
"The trick is not to leave too much behind so that the grass goes rotten or too little so there isnt enough to graze in spring."
But to ensure early grass next spring, fields must be closed as you finish the last rotation – which should start from Oct 15 depending on location, he said. Too many farmers let cattle run over each field for a week or more to clean off the strong grass. "But cows or other stock should spend no more than one to two days in each paddock."
It should not then be grazed until late February/early March. These should also be the driest paddocks to improve the chances of getting out onto them early on next spring.
Also think about leaving some grass behind after closing – about 800kg DM/ha. This is a measure of the grass cover above 4cm (1.6in). "This will ensure there is two inches of grass available in January. This level of cover is required to ensure a response to nitrogen and produce some early grass.
"You dont get a lot of growth in March – so if you want to graze early in spring you must leave some grass behind in autumn."
Twelve-year averages from Mooreparks dairy research centre put October growth at over 20kg DM/ha compared with 12-15kg DM/ha in March, said Mr Ryan.
He suggested estimating grass cover on the farm now and then how much would be available for grazing until say mid-November.
"Try to ration it so that there is some in the diet each day for as long as possible – even if that means just grazing for three to four hours a day."
The Macaffreys had a further 40 days grazing by day for the 150 fresh calvers in their 300-cow autumn and spring calving herd. Fresh calvers were out by day, producing 27 litres off 5kg concentrate, grazing and ad lib grass silage. The plan was to keep grass available to these cows for as long as possible.
But good access would be vital to reduce poaching and grass wastage.
"Tracks and gateways are important – and should be as clean as possible so cows dont dirty or spoil the grass," said Mr Ryan. "Try to have a second gateway to reduce poaching and prevent cows muddying grass."
Grazing technique would also reduce damage to swards and improve grass use.
He suggested block grazing from the back of the paddock and back fencing to protect regrowths – this would allow a third more grass to grow than strip grazing from the front of the paddock back. As well as protecting regrowths, back fencing would reduce poaching damage and cows grazing from the back to the front of paddocks would be walking over a carpet of grass. "The longer grass acts as a carpet to keep them up off the wetter ground," he explained.
Although cows take longer to collect for milking when there is grass in front of them, theyre walking more slowly and do less damage.
Using electric fencing to set up a narrow cow walk along hedgerows was another way to graze in wet conditions. It would also help to let cows out hungry.
"When its wet, let cows out with an edge to their appetite and leave them out for no more than three to four hours in the morning and again after evening milking. They will eat 90% of their daily grass allowance in three to four hours.
"Im trying to coax you to use grass at the shoulders of the year when its difficult to manage grass. When you tell me its hard work – think about the extra £1 a day profit youll earn."
Specialist adviser Matt Ryan (left) and local adviser Michael Fitzpatrick discuss grazing techniques to recduce poaching and improve grass utilisation.
Discussion groups have expanded in Ireland over the last two years as pressure on margins has increased. As many as 200 are run by Irish research and consultancy service Teagasc which charges each member about £60 a year for 12 meetings.
Matt Ryan…block rather strip grazing will allow 30% more grass to grow.
Late autumn grazing is worth an extra £1 a cow a day, discussion group members heard. But new grazing techniques would be needed.