GrassWatch: Stock concern as pasture heads

A lower yield for first-cut silage, and grasses heading faster than usual, are proving a challenge to beef and sheep producers across England.

Dry, warm conditions have brought an earlier tail-off of grazing quality in many fields than beef and sheep producers would have liked, after a disappointing season to date. Concern is now growing for the long-term effect this may have on herd and flock performance.

Those on set-stocked systems with less control on grazing are having the biggest problems, says Grassmaster’s Charlie Morgan. “Rotational grazing requires some careful management and this is paying off in terms of use and reduced heading.

“A lack of grass now could impact on herd fertility in the future as suckler cows are milking off body reserves in many instances. But there are real localised differences in grass growth this year, so every producer should keep a close check on how their sward is performing.”

Data on grass growth, collected at 10 college locations across England as part of the Farmers Weekly/EBLEX GrassWatch initiative, show growth rate and cover have slowed up sharply for the most part..

“First silage cuts are generally lighter than expected and grasses are heading faster than we would have liked as a result of moisture deficits,” continues Mr Morgan. “The upside is fields that were cut are greening up quickly following lighter cuts, so second cuts or grazing could be reasonable when rain arrives.”

But with sward height generally lower than usual, stocking is tending to be tighter than recommended. “Growth is lower as leaf area index is low.

“In set-stocked fields a lot of rejected patches develop, while the grazed areas of good sward are taken too low. On the plus side, dry matter is generally higher, so overall intake is often better than anticipated. Growing stock that have had the advantage of milk are not showing signs for concern.”

The biggest worry will be milkers and sucklers. “Mothers will be milking off their back, which could have implications for fertility later in the year. Creep-feeding calves will be an option for many while sheep producers should consider weaning early. Gear the best of the grazing towards lamb production, while ewes can be a lower priority.”

Mr Morgan recommends all producers keep a close eye on sward quality. Set-stockers should stay ahead of heading by strategic topping, and make sure stocking rate matches the sward available.

“Those on rotational grazing systems want to look closely at sward height of destination pastures and may have to readjust expectations – you might have to move stock a little earlier than you’d planned or you’ll lose the quality.”

There is a lot of variability across the country, however, and much depends on the nature of the sward. First-cut results are analysed in the GrassWatch blog on FWi. As expected recent reseeds have yielded best, while permanent pasture performance is poor.

Moreton Morrell data show a typical set of results,” notes Mr Morgan in his GrassWatch blog. “The permanent pasture has poorer yield and D-value (4.2t/ha of DM at 73D). The two-year-old reseeded areas and an older reseed are still demonstrating improved yields and quality (7.1t/ha DM, 77D and 5.1t/ha DM, 75D).”

Producers are adjusting stock management, according to other blog posts, although there is general relief that grass growth eventually picked up, after a very slow start to the season.

“The calves are doing OK, but I think I will have to start creep feeding them a month earlier than usual,” comments Clive Davies, who runs a pedigree Hereford herd with pedigree Shropshire sheep near Kidderminster, in Worcestershire.

“I normally start at the end of August – but it’ll be the beginning of July this year. It’s an extra cost – but there just isn’t as much grass around as there should be.”

Grass growth has picked up for Buckinghamshire arable and sheep producer Antony Pearce. “The aim is to graze down tightly to 1500kg/ha of DM so that the lambs can benefit from fresh, high quality re-growth when they come back in three weeks’ time.

“It’s not easy to maintain this level of control. One new ley started to head which would have left a very open sward. So I put the ewes back in for a week to take it right down. I am getting much more output from my grass now that I am measuring and have the confidence to exert harder grazing pressure.”

• The latest results have recently been uploaded to the GrassWatch site. Find out there how your grass growth compares with a nearby college farm.

• For more on grazed grass and to earn CPD points, take the Farmers Weekly academy on the subject.