How our Grass Watch farmers are coping with low growth

Grass growth is still far slower than expected for the time of year on all seven of our Grass Watch farms.

Our farmers tell us how they are managing the situation on farm and independent grassland consultant, Gareth Davies of Gareth Grassland, offers some advice for others on how to manage grazing rotations, following some common mistakes he has been seeing on farms.

Look at the interactive map to get a snapshot of the progress on each farm and you can read more detail below.

See also: Grass Watch: Growth rates take a hit after cold weather

Robert Craig

Farm facts

  • Location: Cumbria
  • Land: Total 210ha and ranges from 160-210m above sea level
  • Stock: 430 spring-calving New Zealand/Kiwi-cross cows

Magic day arrived as usual, around 10 April. With covers very low and some of the milking area still unavailable, we have been deliberately reducing demand by still feeding large amounts of silage and concentrates.

This will be reduced rapidly once growth and average farm covers rise and the weather improves.

Although grass is only making up about one-third of the diet (early April), cows are milking well and don’t appear to be losing much condition. We are eight weeks into calving and we have fewer than 10% of the herd left to calve.

All the 2015-born heifers are now out grazing full time and, in addition, two groups of 2016 heifer calves are outside progressing towards weaning on milk powder once a day and eating 1kg a head of rearing pellets. More of the heifer calves will soon follow once the ground conditions allow.

Following the most compact calving ever, we are considering slipping the calving start of the main herd back towards the beginning of March. We feel it is more suitable for Cairnhead, while keeping the heifer start date two weeks earlier to help conception. 

Richard Fryer

Farm facts

  • Location: Northwich, Cheshire
  • Land: Total 97ha, 40m above sea level
  • Stock: 230 autumn-calving Friesians

With low growth rates and continued wet weather, it feels as if it has been a long winter.

Cows are still housed at night, eating about 5kg DM of grass silage, but continue to milk well.

Good grazing infrastructure has been invaluable and with lots of on/off grazing, we have so far avoided making too much mess.

We will start the second round later than usual on 18 April and will be going into covers of about 2,800kg DM/ha. Several paddocks and some of the silage ground will be sprayed for docks as soon as the weather allows.

Ben Richards

Farm facts

  • Location: Helston, Cornwall
  • Land: Total 146ha, at 110m above sea level
  • Stock: 280 Jersey cross Friesians

Very wet conditions have made grazing challenging. I usually start my second round near 20 March, but this year I finished the first round on 30 March with an average farm cover 1,587kg DM/ha.

We had very low – if any – growth during March and this, combined with a compact calving, led to a major feed deficit and damaged pasture.

Cows were parked on a sacrifice paddock (6ha) and had a feed mix fed out in the paddock overnight.

They were stood off the grass on concrete and fed baleage during the day. This lasted for two long weeks. Thankfully the cows went to grass again last night (18 March) and I’m confident yield will return once the girls return to a full grass diet.

Andrew Crow

Farm facts

  • Location: Newport, Shropshire
  • Land: Total 310ha, 360m above sea level
  • Stock: 143 Stabiliser cows with steers finished for his own butchery business

 Grass levels are heading into the danger zone, where overgrazing and poaching will affect later yields.

The ewes and lambs are set-stocked at 10 ewes plus lambs a hectare and we expected grass to grow by 30kg DM/day with a 50kg/ha application of nitrogen.

However, only 10kg DM/day of grass growth means that, at best, ewes are still being corned. Ewes grazing the worst two fields – with only 1,200kg DM/ha grass left – have silage available. 

The past 24 hours has seen the sun shine and the grass change to a darker green, ready to explode into life. I like being an optimist.

Mike Miller

Farm facts

  • Location: Blandford, Dorset
  • Land: 106ha, 100m above sea level
  • Stock: 420 NZ Suffolk cross Mules and 100 NZ Romney ewes

This spring seems to be a real case of two steps forward, then two steps back.

Ground conditions are still very wet, but we have managed to apply a light dressing of 50kg nitrogen/ha on selected grazing paddocks and have taken routine soil samples.

My target covers of over 2,000kg DM/ha for ewes with lambs from the lambing shed is just not achievable in this late grass-growing season and most are grazing swards of about 1,500kg DM/ha at best.

We are constantly moving paddocks to try to leave the desired residual covers for when growth finally kicks off. It is a challenging time for all.

Neil Perkins

Farm facts

  • Location: Dinas Island, north Pembrokeshire
  • Land: Total 223ha at 200m above sea level
  • Stock: 2,100 Lleyn ewes and 700 ewe lambs

Lambing is now all but done for this year.

Grazing this spring has been challenging, with grass covers considerably down on last year.

Some fields have required extra silage to be fed out to maintain the ewes’ requirements. However, the grass is now finally growing, with growth matching demand in the past two weeks.

Some 33kg of nitrogen has been applied in two spreadings three weeks apart. The second application was to help catch up on the loss of production from the cold spring.

All ewes have now been shut in to their blocks, and all the electric fences are being put up to create the paddocks for rotational grazing to start. This is happening a fortnight later than last year.

Sam Chesney

Farm facts

  • Location: Kircubbbin, Northern Ireland
  • Land: Total 30m and sits above sea level
  • Stock: 150 Limousin sucklers

Rain and cold weather has affected grazing and fieldwork.

Silage ground only received fertiliser on 20 April and 70 cows and calves were turned out to the grazing paddocks today.

But grass quality is good, with fields averaging 12.2ME, with protein levels hitting 19.3%.

Some 30 cows and calves that remained outside after turnout in March were put on 36-hour paddocks and moved to sheltered locations across the farm.

As a result we have slight poaching on fields.

It has probably been the most challenging spring yet.

Gareth Davies

Gareth is an independent grassland adviser

As is evident from the grass measurements, grass growth is still far slower than would be expected at this stage of the season.

However, the big lesson from the participating farmers is the fact they know their growth and demand, and can therefore manage the problem as efficiently as possible.

If you do not measure there is no way you can accurately feed your animals. You will know you are short of grass, but by how much?

Is it 2kg DM or 6kg DM? If you think it is the latter, but it is actually the former, you will be wasting money (which most farmers don’t have this year).

Or if you think it’s the former and it turns out to be the latter, your animals will be underfed. If you don’t measure you can’t manage.

The other critical point is to slow down the rotation, not speed it up.

I have seen a number of farms that have gone round the paddocks too quickly and are now very short of grass – they have started feeding again.

If the feed had been introduced earlier and the rotation was slowed down, it would have allowed the fields to grow some extra cover before grazing and feeding could have been stopped sooner.

The other disadvantage of grazing too quickly is that when the growth does explode (as it will in the next couple of weeks), there will be no wedge of grass on the farm – every field will be at the same stage of regrowth, which makes it very difficult to manage.

Fields must be grazed down tightly enough before moving onto the next paddock. Remember, residual is king.