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Thursday 19 January 2017

Balancing grass supplies with next year's calving and quota

Dairy

Mary Kinston

Published 06/09/2011 | 05:00

Grass growth has slowed and been rather disappointing for a lot of farmers in recent weeks. This is very noticeable on free draining soils with low rainfall levels, especially towards the east. As a result, one of the big problems this autumn is the challenge of extending the grazing rotation and building up grass cover.

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Not an ideal scenario if your milk quota is an issue and you would like to produce milk from grass and grass alone. So what needs to be considered?

It's important that decisions made this autumn do not compromise next year's potential.

Therefore we need clarity about what we are trying to achieve with autumn grass management. First and foremost, it is now time to start preparing for next year by focusing on the targets required at the beginning of next spring. The main aim is to make sure the lactation for the spring calving herd is started with:

•Sufficient good quality pasture.

•Pastures in good condition for rapid growth in spring.

•Cows that are in adequate condition score at calving.

This means that your management this autumn must not compromise your required closing grass cover determined by a feed budget.

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You should also avoid taking covers higher than 1,500kgDM/ha through the winter and ensure cows calve at a condition score of 3.25.

To do this you will need to project cow numbers and calving rate for 2012 to draw up a feed budget. This will determine whether the pasture demand will be met by projected grass growth rates to achieve a suitable closing grass cover or whether there is a feed deficit which will need to be filled.

Where there is a desire to milk on this autumn with no concentrates due to its cost implications, a feed budget deficit can be filled by one of three options:

•Stocks of conserved forages (ideally high quality round baled silage) or an existing forage crop.

•Bringing in extra land such as silage ground either by grazing or zero grazing.

•Systematically drying cows off and selling or culling cows.

Historically, most farmers have relied on the flush of growth through September and the use of concentrates to build grass covers, which in turn allows the grazing rotation to slow and more days in milk to be achieved from grazed grass.

If you are likely to be substantially over quota, and you fail to increase your pasture cover by grass growth, the most obvious move this year could be to strategically dry-off and remove cows to align your pasture demand with pasture growth and hold your present pasture cover.

While this may not follow the rules that have served us so well in recent years, it does remove any unnecessary costs associated with producing marginal litres. However, remember that drying off is a permanent decision that can not be reversed if there is a flush in grass growth, so be sensible and consider your historic grass growth rates.

However, it will still be important to extend your grazing rotation.

Scanning is another useful tool for autumn management as this will indicate both your calving spread and identify the animals that are empty and most suitable for culling. Scanning is the only way you will know if mating was successful enough to allow you the opportunity to upgrade your herd by selectively culling.

Projecting your milk supply curve for the remainder of this year and for next year, alongside the financial analysis of this year and budget for next year, will be another important step taken this autumn where milk quota is either full or limiting.

Consider how many animals will be milked next year, how much milk will be supplied in February and March and whether you will reserve enough of your remaining available quota to cover this and hence curb your autumn production. If you have already or are destined to fill your quota by the end of the autumn, do you have enough cash surplus or overdraft facility to cope with a superlevy fine or reduced output next spring?

Also give yourself enough breathing space to allow for a 10-15pc over-run on these figures, just in case the 'what if?' scenario comes into play. If your quota is not yet filled, different production options could be considered. Risking a superlevy fine may be more suitable for some than others.

Dr Mary Kinston is a farm consultant based in Kerry. Email: mary.kinston@gmail.com

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