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Teagasc advice on how to improve grassland performance:
1. Increased emphasis on measurement and feed budgeting
Greater adoption of pasture measurement and budgeting will be essential to lift grass utilisation from its current level. Recent research has shown that at higher stocking rates, both grass production and utilisation can be increased. The development of web-based grassland management decision support tools such as PastureBase Ireland (PBI) will be critical in increasing the adoption of best grazing management practices at farm level.
The weekly use of such reliable, easy to use decision support tools will be essential to increase grass utilisation at farm level.
2. The development of the Pasture Profit Index (PPI) is a significant step towards linking breeding objectives, evaluation programmes and farmer’s needs. PBI provides a mechanism for new cultivars to be evaluated at farm level thereby increasing the rate of genetic gain.
Selecting grass varieties based on the PPI will result in increased profit at farm level. Additionally, there is the possibility that biotechnologies similar to those used in dairy cattle breeding could increase the rate of genetic progress in grass breeding in the near future.
3. Raising soil fertility to maximise pasture productivity
Since the late 1990s the levels of phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and lime being applied to grassland in Ireland has reduced significantly. As a result only 10% of the soils tested on dairy farms were optimal for soil pH, P, and K in 2015. It is not possible to have optimum grass production with this level of soil fertility.
Recent research has shown that a soil with optimum pH has a replacement value of 72 kg/ha of N fertiliser. Similarly, soils with optimum P can deliver an additional 1 t/ha of DM in spring period. While it costs money to increase fertility levels in low fertility soils, the return in grass production more than doubles the annual investment in fertilizer costs.
4. Management of marginal lands
Marginal land occupies a large proportion (approximately 50pc) of Ireland’s total land area. This land is limited principally by its poor drainage status and farm profitability on such land is highly weather dependent. The Heavy Soils Research Programme has demonstrated site-specific land drainage design methods to ensure efficient drainage can be achieved, regardless of variations in soil/site conditions.
Land drainage and infrastructure improvement strategies will be critical in reducing income volatility and sustaining viable farm enterprises on heavy soils. Additionally, there is a requirement to develop specific additional management strategies in order to maximise profitability on these heavy soils.
5. Incorporating clover in grazing swards
There is renewed interest in forage legumes, particularly white clover, as it offers important opportunities for sustainable grass-based animal production systems by increasing herbage yield, increasing herbage nutritive value and raising the efficiency of conversion of herbage to product. Results from research carried both at Moorepark and Clonakilty Agriculture Collage show a significant advantage to including white clover into perennial dominated ryegrass pastures. Despite the clear advantages of incorporating white clover into ryegrass pastures, its adoption on Irish grassland farms is low. This requires significant research allowing greater adoption at farm level over the coming years.
In Europe, grass breeders have increased DM yield by 0.5pc per year as tested in cutting trials in the Netherlands and Northern Ireland. However, there is little evidence that new grass cultivars have made a significant contribution to increased animal production from grazed pasture.
Considerably greater gain has been achieved in breeding other crops such as maize. There is considerable potential to increase the rate of genetic gain in perennial ryegrass, not only in annual yield but also in other traits such as improved winter/spring growth, increased nutritional value especially in mid-season and persistency.