Selecting the latest grass genetics could help producers protect themselves from increasing weather volatility.
However, grassland experts are warning that many farmers are failing to make the most of the best varieties available and potentially missing out on big production gains.
Scientists from the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) believe not enough farmers are using The Recommended Grass and Clover List, which includes the best-performing varieties for yield, D-value and persistency.
Richard Hayes, forage grass breeder at IBERS, says: “By using the best varieties available the profit a farmer can make from a good grass ley is huge.”
Studies looking at the effect of D-value on animal performance show a 1% increase in D-value equates to an increase in milk production of 0.28 litres a day in dairy cows at grass and an increase in daily liveweight gain of 20g a day in fat lambs.
Even the difference between the highest and lowest yielding perennial ryegrass varieties on the list is considerable at 1.23t/ha of DM a year, which is worth £150/ha.
Lois Philipps, of the British Grass Society, believes at a time when most farmers have experienced unprecedented wet weather, this year provides an ideal opportunity to benefit from better varieties.
“Farmers wouldn’t use cattle genetics that are 20 years old – they should think of their grass genetics in the same way,” she says.
Producers should actively seek the best varieties from their grass merchant. However, while many merchants make up the mixes themselves, they may not necessarily be using the latest varieties, she warns.
Ms Philipps believes new varieties will enable farmers to “hedge their bets” against certain eventualities.
For example, Simon Kerr, from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) says timothy varieties could be added to perennial ryegrass mixtures to help counter balance wet conditions.
“Timothy is a grass that does better under wet conditions. It gives equivalent yields to ryegrass, but it is not as robust.
“If ryegrass is suffering because of the wet then timothy will compensate for that.”
Meanwhile, Mr Kerr advises producers with land more prone to drought to consider using a larger proportion of tetraploids in their ley mix, alongside diploids.
What should I consider when selecting new varieties?
- What do you want to use the ley for? Silage, grazing or a combination of both?
- How long do you want it to last? Look at persistency figures.
- Heading dates are key. If you want to cut silage in the first week of May all the varieties within the mix need to be ready at the same time.
- Look at disease survivability for things such as Crown Rust.
- D-value is also important; this is an indicator of the nutrients it will provide the animal with.
- Yield is going to be critical, with many forage stocks already running low. Yield will give you an idea of the quantity of a crop produced.