Farm Ireland

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Confront poor grass growth head on to ensure good stock condition

Mary Kinston

This year will be remembered because of the wet weather, but it's the poor grass growth since the middle of spring that is the real challenge for dairy farmers. It's been either too cold or too wet, so with no real sunshine or heat grass growth has often been lower than expected, especially this autumn.

Many farms had average pasture covers of less than 800kgDM/ha on October 1, and the challenge now hinges on the ability to manage a dwindling feed supply. A large amount of youngstock have been taken off areas the milking cows can graze.

Empty cows and undesirable milkers (poor producers, three teats, high SCC, lame) have been dried off and moved off. Concentrate feeding rates have increased dramatically with many feeding between 2-6kg/head, and silage bales are being used to buffer grazing.

Many cows are simply being housed by night and given silage. As we all know, this just adds extra costs to an ever decreasing margin, and increases pressure on cashflow.

A number of dairy farmers have mentioned how they are aiming to keep the cows grazing up until November 1.

While there are targets to graze around 60pc of the farm by November 1 with the aim of creating a staggered wedge of pasture cover, the main priority is to leave enough pasture cover for the spring.

This 'closing pasture cover' must not be compromised irrespective of how much of the grazing platform has been grazed. However, if you do feel that grazing will close up earlier than usual, to what pasture cover can you decrease it to?

This is all determined by the cover you require in spring. For example, if you need around 600kgDM/ha on February 1, and we assume that winter growth will give you 50kgDM/ha, this will require 550kgDM/ha on December 1.

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With the potential to grow 200-300kgDM/ha during November, one may argue that the pasture cover could be decreased to 250-350kgDM/ha on November 1. However this decision must be made with caution. Reducing the average pasture cover below 400kgDM/ha will potentially reduce grass growth rates due to the lack of leaf area and the lower potential for photosynthesis. I would recommend that pasture cover must not go any lower than 350kgDM/ha at any time this autumn to minimise the risk to the spring grazing budgets. Therefore, monitoring grass covers this autumn is still an important task.

Having spoken to a number of farmers who have scanned, the majority have reasonable or good in-calf rates, with empty rates of 6-10pc being common for a 12-week mating. The one thing that strikes me with these results is that whilst the weather couldn't have been worse, cows handled the challenge of 2012 well as they were in good condition, fit and healthy at the start of 2012. How can this be achieved in 2013? Five top issues in terms of stock management are:

1.Strategic drying off and winter mob management to hit body condition score 3.25 at the start of calving. Extra time dry or high quality supplementary feed may be essential to achieve this weight gain with poor quality silage.

2.A good dosing regime to manage the liver fluke and rumen fluke burden in cows and youngstock. Apparently, the 11 weeks of continuous wet weather that included four weeks of June will produce ideal conditions for fluke. When you factor in the mild winter of 2011/12, 2012 has been a great year for snails so fluke will be a big problem this year.

Liver fluke burdens will depress milk protein concentrations and can lead to reduced milks yields, so this may answer a few questions. Liver fluke may also increase the susceptibility of cows to Salmonella Dublin infection.

3.An appropriate and well-timed vaccination programme will help, with winter vaccination for IBR, rotovirus, coronavirus and salmonella and pre-breeding vaccinations for leptospirosis and BVD.

4.Adequate dry cow minerals are also important. Consider blood and milk tests to determine present levels if you are concerned. 2012 has seen grass look very depleted so there's a potential for a follow-on effect on cows and youngstock.

5.Identify in-calf heifers and weanlings which are behind in terms of liveweight. Put these into small groups and feed accordingly to achieve target weight for calving and mating whilst you still have time to correct this. Finally, when looking around the farm this autumn, consider what needs to be done to get the grazing ground back to full potential.

If we get the right weather conditions in 2013 we will need to prioritise some funds to repair and rejuvenate poached or ponding areas and broken drains.

Given the weather patterns of the past five years it is very apparent that if blessed with a fine year, we must prepare the land to handle the wet year.

Dr Mary Kinston is a farm consultant based in Kerry. Email:

Indo Farming