'Don't wait for the perfect day - get fertiliser spread as soon as you can'
Farmers told that spreading in mid-February can save a serious amount of money, writes Claire Fox
'If you wait for the perfect day in March or April to spread Nitrogen, you have lost a month where grass could have been grown. Now is your chance to grow grass."
That's the verdict of Teagasc research officer Philip Creighton, speaking at last week's Grass10 Sheep Grazing Farm Walk, which took place on Dan O'Loughlin's farm in Mountrice near Monasterevin, Co Kildare.
"If you look at the forecast and we're going to have snow tomorrow, don't spread it - that's common sense," Mr Creighton told farmers.
"It takes a couple of days to get in to the plant but even if we get bad weather, after that it's there and ready to go.
"We have to be responsible with what we are doing as nobody wants to cause pollution or anything like that, but we have to get value for our money."
Mr O'Loughlin's experiences back up Mr Creighton's advice. He spread urea on "every bit of his fields" on February 12 last year; he feared the Storm Emma snow would wipe out any positive influence the fertiliser would have on grass growth, but luckily he was proven wrong.
"I said to myself 'well that was a total waste of time, a useless exercise' but then grass shot up in mid-March. I couldn't believe it. If the conditions are right, spreading in mid-February is key," said Dan, whose grassland management skills include "walking the farm and keeping things simple".
These conditions include having a minimum soil temperature of 5.5C, having fertiliser in the yard, active grass growth and favourable weather.
"Having fertiliser in the yard early is key, if it's not in there at a busy time of year it can be very hard to get some; it can sometimes take a week to get it, and that's a week's less growth," Teagasc Grass10 advisor John Douglas said on the walk.
"Soil temperature here this morning is 8C which is what you would usually get in April, so we are well ahead of normal."
Teagasc sheep specialist Ciaran Lynch pointed out that feeding ewes with concentrates costs four and a half times more than feeding them grass that has been boosted with nitrogen.
"10kg grass dry matter will feed a ewe for four days in early lactation at a cost of 82c, whereas 10kg of ewe and lamb concentrates costs €3.70," he said. "The total cost to feed 100 ewes a day if spring nitrogen is applied is €20.25; the cost to feed 100 ewes a day on ration would be €92.50."
Mr Lynch advised farmers that the best conversion of nitrogen happens now and that if farmers are tight with grass in April they'll never make it up.
"There are times no doubt when ration is needed but now is the time to drive on," he said. "We have a great start - drive on now when you have the opportunity and when the conditions are right."
Mr Creighton demonstrated to farmers how the paddock system in the Teagasc farm in Athenry is driving increased grass growth, while maintaining a high standard of animal welfare.
"We're not going to be doing everything perfectly for the grass now because we need to bear in mind that we have young lambs and if we start moving sheep very often after two or three days and lambs are very young, we will have mis-mothering and injuries," he explained.
"Some people start putting a few lambs and ewes in every field. This is perfect for the sheep but there is no regrowth, and you're at the end of March with no ground rested for new leaves to grow, and when the pressure comes on later there won't be enough to feed the sheep."
He said they have a five paddock rotation system on the Athenry farm. The first half of ewes and lambs graze the first paddock that was sprayed with nitrogen, and Teagasc put the second group of ewes and lambs in the second paddock. By the time the middle of April comes they should have enough grass in the remaining paddocks to join the two groups together and avoid that chaos that is involved with moving very young lambs.
"It might be different from the traditional way of putting lambs everywhere and you can do that if you want, but I can bet with you that you'll have no grass in the middle of April," he said.
"It's all relative to the number of sheep you have in a group; for us it's 60 ewes, so that means 30 ewes and 30 ewes, but we have a much smaller area.
"If you look at a 100 ewes example in a five-acre paddock system, it's the same thing; if it's a bigger group, increase the paddock size." Mr Creighton added that it's important that the first paddock gets a second application of nitrogen in late March to ensure you have enough grass to meet the growing demands of ewes and their lambs going forward.
"You should put out your 23-30 units at the end of March," he said.
"If you don't go again you won't have grass when you need it. You'll need the next six weeks of growth to ensure you have it to satisfy demand.
"Then you can start deciding if you need more during the year. If you've a higher stocking rate you will have to put some out."
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