Farmer Focus: Why maintaining grazing quality is vital for us

In my previous article, I wrote that grass was king (or queen) – and that certainly hasn’t changed.

But the political landscape is constantly changing, and in Ireland we are in the process of electing a prime minister, a blonde-haired fellow. Perhaps then, the metaphor for white clover can be prime minister.

The quality of forage – in terms of its palatability, digestibility, protein and energy levels – is the biggest limiting factor to cow performance in our seasonal system.

See also: Advice on establishing and growing clover in grass leys

Research farms in multiple locations in Ireland have shown over the past five years or so that perennial ryegrass swards with white clover will improve total milk solid yields by 4-7%.

Sward quality is increased from mid-June onwards, causing less of a decline in production.

Add to this the fact that these swards grow as much tonnage of dry matter from 150kg of nitrogen as ryegrass-only swards do with 250kg of nitrogen, and we have ourselves a no-brainer (similar to wearing a face mask in public places at the moment).

The other side to forage quality in the second half of the year is the pre-grazing cover our cows are going into. My personal observances, and those of many others, demonstrate that cows grazing covers of 3,500kg DM/ha or more will experience greater drops in yield, and pasture use and subsequent regrowth will suffer.

Targeting 2,800kg DM in midsummer and building to a maximum of 3,300-3,400kg at the start of October will increase the nutritional quality of the diet and make the most of our system’s competitive advantage.

Having gone through some heavier covers (up to 3,700kg in late August/early September, we are now grazing 3,200kg on average, and can see improved performance as a result. Less is sometimes more.

With the help of a little bit of clover, a lot of grass and 2.5kg concentrate, the herd is currently yielding 1.37kg of milk solids at 6.15% fat and 4.80% protein.

Our milk price last month equated to 40p/litre.

Effective establishment of clover and grazing management will involve a few new techniques and practices, but the potential gains – financial and environmental – are too numerous to ignore.

Gillian and Neil O’Sullivan are dairy farmers from southern Ireland. Read more.