8 ways livestock farmers can manage a grass shortage

Livestock farmers are being encouraged to calculate grass availability and act quickly to prevent forage shortages amidst one of the driest springs on record.

April and May typically see peak annual grass production, but some livestock producers are reportedly feeding ‘hand to mouth’ with supplementary feed, weaning early, destocking, and grazing silage fields.

Livestock consultant Liz Genever says it is important for farmers to review their situation and ensure they have enough feed for their animals.

See also: How a farmer slashed milking times and improved udder health

They must also prevent sward damage by not grazing pastures too hard. Dr Genever says grazing paddocks below 4cm without enough resting time between grazing will affect regrowth when rains return.

“Farmers need to understand how much grass they haven’t got and plan accordingly.”

Grazing consultant Clyde Jones says supplementary feeding is a necessity on some of his client’s dairy farms in southern England. Reports suggest grass growth down at 20-30kg of dry matter (DM)/ha/day and demand at 40-50kg.

Mr Jones says: “Grass growth is half what it should be in some areas and a lot of people are already supplementing feed with silage and concentrates.”

Dr Genever and Mr Jones outline options for what farmers facing a forage shortage can do.

1. Understand grass shortfalls

Measuring grass and knowing how many grazing days there are ahead will allow you to plan what to do to overcome the deficit.

2. Prioritise groups of animals on the farm

This should be done in the following order:

  • Ewes and lambs should be prioritised as lambs transition from milk to grass
  • Growing cattle
  • Cows and calves. These tend to be more resilient and calves have a longer growing period to recover.

3. Plan winter feed budgets

Winter feed budgeting now will provide guidance on what grass is needed on 1 October to get you through. “Your winter feed will be influenced by what you do in the next three months,” says Dr Genever.

4. Wean lambs earlier

Lambs can be weaned from eight weeks old but 10-12 weeks is ideal. If ewes are losing condition and lambs have no food, then this is a trigger to act, says Dr Genever.

Weaning ewes early reduces grass demand as dry ewes have less nutritional demand than lactating ewes.

5. Introduce supplementary feed

Sacrifice some standing grass now and strip graze. This can be an option for lambs as they transition onto the grass and eat more. Feeding silage, hay or concentrates may be necessary where demand exceeds supply.

Creep feeding youngstock will depend on individual farms. On dairy farms with a forage shortfall, concentrate levels may need to be doubled from 2-3kg/head a day to 4-6kg.

6. Slow down the grazing rotation

Ryegrass paddock rotation lengths can be increased from about 21 days to 30 days and herbal leys to 40 days. Herbal leys can handle longer rotations as they do not head as fast and bases will not rot as quickly as ryegrass. Pastures containing plenty of red clover can be extended to 50 days.

7. Short-term hybrid brassicas

Anyone thinking about reseeding could plant some forage rape that will be ready to graze in 12 weeks. Although this can put pressure on remaining grazing ground it will provide extra forage later. It has rapid growth availability and good year-round performance.

8. Reducing livestock numbers

Some farms may have to sell cull animals, stores, or reduce breeding stock. Now is the time to remove underperforming animals.

Preserving forage quality in dry weather

Regular assessment of cereal crops and a short wilt time are essential to maintain crop quality after one of the driest springs on record, says Dave Davies of Silage Solutions.

Dr Davies’s message is to monitor crops as often as possible to allow for an early harvest if necessary before crude protein and energy are lost. He explains four strategies to help minimise losses this summer:

Conduct regular forage inspections
Once a drought hits a plant it will not recover properly. If there are signs of the crop dying, harvest immediately. A dying crop that gets rain becomes a higher mycotoxin risk.

Consider harvesting cereal forage crops earlier
These could be harvested before the seed head emerges if necessary. This leaves a smaller plant which needs less water to stay alive, resulting in increased yield over the year.

Cut at 7.5-10cm wilt for as little time as possible and ensile like grass. Early cut cereal could easily have a crude protein of 18 and an ME (metabolisable energy) of 12

Leave a residual when cutting
Cutting plants too low could limit regrowth later in the year when rain does come. A really dense, lush green crop can be cut no lower than 5cm. A slightly more advanced silage crop nearer seed head formation should be cut at 7.5-10cm

Shorten silage wilt time
Aim for 30% dry matter in grass silage. Conduct your own microwave or ball dry matter tests to save time on laboratory tests.

Case study: John Martin, Greyabbey, County Down

For Northern Irish sheep producer John Martin, the severe lack of moisture has left his farm on the east coast with only 0.6 grazing days ahead of him and a situation worse than the 2018 drought.

Some grass has burned completely off, and ewes and lambs are being fed leftover silage and meal to allow the grass time to recover.

He says: “We are keeping going hand to mouth. This situation is worse than in 2018 as it has come earlier. Two years ago, we lost 3-4t DM and it will be a similar amount this year. We will be catching up the rest of the season.”

Mr Martin is looking to wean lambs, born in late March, at nine weeks old instead of the usual 12 weeks. He is also looking to sell culls earlier.

He has managed to take a silage cut, but quality is down, with a third classed as “no better than good grazing”. “We’ve had a 50-60% crop,” he says.

Luckily, Mr Martin had a third of the pit still full of silage from the previous year and has been feeding that to his sheep. He is also hoping to plant some hybrid rape/kale to give some additional feed for the early lambers.

Mr Martin lambed more than 700 ewes this year, stocked at 14 ewes a ha.

He is rotationally grazing with permanent and electric fencing. The rotational grazing is aiding grass recovery, he says.