22 March 2002

Minimise risks wet weather poses to early spring turnout

By Richard Allison

EARLY grazing is off to a slow start as some producers battle in the wet to graze fields without damaging swards.

Early turnout is worthwhile when there is enough grass and it can be harvested carefully, says Northern Ireland-based dairy consultant Carol Doak. "But it is crucial to get it right because early grazing sets up paddocks for the rest of the year."

When it is too wet to graze, for farms with sufficient forage, cows are best indoors. But some producers have been forced to turn some cattle out to eke out forage stocks, says Mrs Doak.

"Grazing for two separate three-hour periods before and after afternoon milking plus parlour cake will be close to meeting cows total dry matter requirement."

One producer taking advantage of early grazing is Gavin Fowler. "There is plenty of grass with covers of 2000kg DM/ha, but careful management is crucial to prevent excessive poaching by the 220-cow herd."

Most fields on his Devon unit are steeply sloping, which increases risk of sward damage, he says.

"After recent wet weather, cows have been moved to flatter maize fields which were undersown with Italian ryegrass. It does not matter if these areas become poached, as they will be ploughed and sown in a months time."

About 16ha (40 acres) of maize was undersown with ryegrass which is grazed first in February to avoid poaching permanent pastures. These areas also serve as emergency grazing during wet periods, says Mr Fowler.

When temporary grazing areas are not available, Mrs Doak advises adopting back fencing. "Cows should graze an area for a maximum of one day before being moved to the next area. This can be cut to half a day in very wet periods."

She also advises using separate entry and exit gateways to prevent animals walking over the same area of ground. Grazing periods should be limited to a maximum of three hours, when cows will easily eat 5-6kg DM.

"Cows should also graze the back half of fields during dry spells to leave drier more accessible areas of paddocks for grazing when wet."

Richard Davies is already grazing marshy areas of his Anglesey unit. "There has been little rain recently, allowing wet areas to be grazed. Freshly calved milking cows are now outside day and night, with access to grass silage and 7kg/day of parlour concentrates. They are yielding about 30kg of milk/day."

To help management, Mr Davies walks his pastures weekly. "Areas grazed a month ago are growing back, with growth rates at nearly 20kg DM/ha. Covers are a little lower than in previous years, as an extra grazing round was squeezed in last autumn." &#42

EARLY GRAZING

&#8226 Slow growth.

&#8226 High poaching risk.

&#8226 Restrict grazing period.

Grass covers (Mar 19)

kg DM/ha

Cumbria 1,800

Wilts (organic) 1,980

Staffs 2,000

Dorset 2,400

Devon 2,000