Farmer Focus: Dry May puts grazing strategy to the test

The milk price slide continues, with a further drop to 40.08 euro cents/litre (35p/litre) from our processor, Tirlán. Alarming news, considering the early summer is beginning to look a bit parched and potentially expensive.

Grassland management, as taught in agricultural colleges, centres around maintaining pasture quality for maximum production from cows.

See also: 5 tips for managing livestock and grazing in drier weather

Put the cows on pasture at the correct pre-grazing cover, for the right amount of time, hitting the perfect, tight residual.

The correct residual means less stem and more good-quality, leafy growth at the next grazing. Apply nitrogen and repeat.

This strategy works well in general, but has a single caveat – the prevailing weather must have read the same textbook and must play by the rules.

In March, it rained 26 out of 31 days, with 70% more rainfall than the long-term average. Now, in early June, we are nearly four weeks without a drop.

Every year we try to add another tool to the toolbox to help tailor our grassland management to match the swings in weather extremes.

Following the textbook leads to baling surplus grass before feeding it back a few weeks later. Weighing up the costs, we would rather avoid that.

Our toolbox for dry conditions on light soils includes swapping out ryegrass swards for multispecies pasture on the lightest soils, running a higher farm cover from May to incorporate a weather buffer, reducing stocking rate, and creating a feed “war chest”.

Each of these tools has merits, depending on the context. For example, using multispecies slows the transition to yellow on the hills in comparison with ryegrass.

This year, we have added another tool: planting a mixed summer grazing crop of rye, vetch, clovers, radish, rape, turnip and phacelia.

It was set under good conditions on 24 April with a Guttler grass seeder and received adequate rain over the first 18 days.

The crop appeared, but has now stalled without further rain and is nowhere near grazing.

We wanted something green and leafy during July or August, when dry conditions usually pinch the most, but that plan hinged on good growth during May and June.

Some rape and radish are up and growing, but overall the crop looks very sparse. A multispecies pasture is earmarked to follow in August. Sigh…