Be patient when it comes to turning out beef cattle

After a long, miserable winter, it is all too tempting to put beef cattle out to grass. However, turning stock out when grass cover is insufficient will often mean they need extra feed supplementation, and will set grass growth back for the rest of the season.

Patience is a virtue when it comes to turning out beef cattle, says independent beef consultant David Hendy. “Although the weather has improved, soil temperatures are still low and grass growth is yet to really get going.”

Ideally, cattle should be put out when grass is at muzzle-width – less than this will create problems with grass being grazed too tightly, comments EBLEX beef scientist Liz Genever.

“When grass is grazed to less than 3cm, you are constantly exhausting grass reserves and reducing its ability to grow. If you don’t remove stock and allow pasture to recover it will impact future growth,” she says.

According to Mr Hendy, cows and calves should be put out when grass has reached 7.5-10cm.”It may be possible to graze young stock on slightly shorter swards of about 5cm.

“The bottom line is practicality. In reality it may not be possible to wait until grass is sufficient.”

Turnout should be a planned decision not a panic reaction to low feed stocks.
When this is the case there is a number of steps you can take. “Decreasing the number of stock/acre will ensure grass is not grazed too severely. This will allow grass to tiller out and ensure better quality long lasting swards.”

Buffer-feeding is a good way of supplementing animals. “Supplementing can include feeding 1-1.5kg/head a day of rolled barley or continuing to feed a proportion of the housed ration in bunker feeders,” says Mr Henley. With spring grass typically being low dry matter, any hard feed will help slow rumen passage and maximise feed efficiency. It may also be worth offering silage or straw at 4-5kg/head a day.

The supplementation you choose will depend on the stock you are feeding, says Dr Genever. “A beef animal has a total dry matter requirement of 2% of its body weight. The type and quantity of supplementation will vary depending on grass availability, weight of the animal and quality and availability of feed.

“When you are dealing with a yearling animal, you are aiming to grow frame, so supplementation with straw will be sufficient.

“However, for higher value finishers you will need a higher value feed, such as concentrates or silage, to ensure quicker growth rates,” says Dr Genever.

With some farmers running out of silage stocks, there is even more pressure to put cows out to grass.

Ideally, feed stocks should be assessed early on in winter and replacement stocks bought early, says Mr Hendy. “Ration planning is key to ensure supplies don’t run short and cattle are not forced out too early. When you are experiencing feed shortages make sure you plan winter feeding for next season,” he says.

Ask yourself why you are turning out, says Dr Genever. “Early turnout should be a well-considered management decision not a panic reflex to shortening feed supplies.

“When you are considering early turnout in spring you should be thinking about which fields you are going to use the September and October before. These fields should be grazed down to 4-5cm and left over winter to allow grass reserves to build up,” she adds.

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