Danish dairy farmer focuses on grassland management

Attending ‘Forage School’ has encouraged Danish dairy farmer Thomas Poulsen to take a hard look at his grassland management.

Danish dairy farmers Thomas and his father Nels have made a real effort to focus on improving their grass after enrolling in Forage School, run by Denmark’s Farmers’ Union.

The Poulsens run a herd of high-yielding pedigree Jersey cows at Aagaarden, 100km south of Copenhagen on Zealand, which are fed a mixed forage ration with concentrate fed according to yield, up to 5kg/day.

“Grass is really important for us,” explains Mr Poulsen. “Our cows need structure in their ration to keep their rumens in good order, and high-protein grass silage complements the other forages perfectly. If we want to produce high-quality milk and have healthy cows, we need plenty of good grass.”

Independent consultants at the forage school have encouraged them to monitor sward performance by measuring yields from each field, and helped them select appropriate grass mixtures and decide which fields to grow them in.

“We always used to grow grass in fields nearest the stable, but many of these are small and awkwardly shaped,” says Mr Poulsen.

“When we looked in more detail we found it is more efficient to grow grass in the larger, rectangular fields, even though they are much further away from the silage clamps.”

Mr Poulsen is also considering putting fixed driving lanes into the fields, to reduce traffic damage to the soils caused by cutting several times a year.

Grass selection

Selecting which grasses to sow in Denmark is easier than in the UK, as there is a set of recommended mixtures to choose from, devised by an expert board.

Most of these are cutting leys, containing red and white clovers to boost protein content, as well several grass species including perennial, Italian and hybrid ryegrasses, festuloliums and fescues.

The Poulsens are currently using a new festulolium variety that combines the high feed quality of an Italian ryegrass with the deep rooting depth and winter hardiness of meadow fescue – which will help maintain growth during hot weather and cold winters.

Festuloliums also use nitrogen more efficiently than conventional ryegrasses. This is particularly important in Denmark where there are strict limits on applying nutrients – a maximum of 330kg N/ha on all-grass swards, and 220kg N/ha on grass leys with clover in them.

Breeding better varieties

Farm facts

  • Herd has grown from 40 cows in 1986 to 430 plus followers today
  • Cows are housed all year round and live in four groups in a large barn
  • High land prices (up to £30,000/ha), ideal ground for growing arable crops and a limit on cow numbers a hectare – mean most Danish dairy herds remain indoors
  • Milk has a 6% fat and 4.5% protein content and is sold to Arla for cheese processing for €55c/litre (45p/litre)
  • Farm extends to 345ha with 100ha of maize and 60ha of medium-term grass/clover leys
  • Cereals are also grown for forage
  • Aim is to take five cuts of high-quality grass for silage – although dry summers can restrict regrowth

Work is also being conducted in Denmark to improve feed value and digestibility of the fibre component.

“Fibre is one of the main reasons for feeding grass to ruminants, but it can be indigestible, locking up valuable nutrients,” says Dr Klaus Nielsen, director of research and development for DLF Trifolium. “Research suggests a 10% improvement in fibre digestibility can uplift milk production by 6.4%, while reducing nitrogen release to the environment by 4.9%. So this is what we are aiming for in the future.”

Improving output from grass

Tim Kerridge, UK sales director for DLF Trifolium, gives some top grassland management tips:

Grass choice

  • Select the right species and varieties for the job eg Italian ryegrasses for cutting; late heading perennial ryegrasses for grazing
  • Match grasses to each specific site – light or heavy soils, low or high rainfall
  • Decide how long the ley is required – two to three years or longer?
  • Make sure the mixture contains varieties on the Recommended Grass and Clover List

Management

  • Pinpoint last year’s worst-performing fields – which gave the lightest silage cuts or disappointing liveweight gains? Try to find out why
  • Work from the bottom up – take a close look at soil structure. Dig a hole. Is there compaction? If so, investigate the causes
  • Take soil samples for analysis to ascertain pH, P and K status. Correct any problems – add lime if pH is 6 or below
  • Are weeds a problem? A 10% infestation of docks will reduce grass yield by 10%. Are grass weeds such as annual meadow grass taking over?
  • Make a plan for each field and decide whether it can be brought up to scratch by overseeding, or whether ploughing and drilling a new mixture is the best way to boost performance. If sown species make up less than 50% of a field a full reseed will increase yield, feed value and response to nitrogen significantly.

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