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Dairy: Fingers crossed for a mild spell

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Cattle (stock photo)

Cattle (stock photo)

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Cattle (stock photo)

Spring conditions are always a variable feast, and this spring is no different.

Around the country farm conditions vary from slightly soft to saturated, as a result of weather that has mixed bitter cold periods with sunny spells.

Depending on underfoot conditions, on some farms cows have been out since calving, while others have been out and rehoused due to the deterioration in grazing conditions.

As with every spring, each farmer has to redefine what level of damage can be tolerated without impacting the farm's future grass growth.

On and off grazing and back fencing have certainly been the required skill-set of February. As a result the percentage grazed up to the March 1 has also varied significantly, with some farms having struggled to graze 5-10pc of the milking platform. In contrast, others have over 30pc grazed.

Debates about spreading fertiliser nitrogen have been rampant. Generally two main rules should be adhered to in early spring. Do not spread nitrogen when the soil temperature is less than 6C and when the soil it saturated. Ideally nitrogen fertiliser should be applied when the pasture is actively growing.

In terms of grass supply, most farms opened this spring with a good average pasture cover (greater 700kgDM/ha). These have supported the February grazing. While I have seen good levels of regrowth on some grazed paddocks, if the soil temperature keeps wavering around 6C as it has in the last few weeks, my concerns will move to anticipated grass growth rates and speed of grazing in March.

Unless weather conditions start to become increasingly milder then there will be a fear of low grass growth rates and rapidly falling average pasture covers. This will require you to adjust your grazing plans in order to save more of your first rotation grazing area for the beginning to middle of April.

When grass growth is slower than anticipated, the correct response is always to slow down grazing until you've seen some level of recovery. This will require you to increase the supplementary feeding available to the milking cows. While it can be true that grazed paddocks seem to grow more in spring than saved paddocks, the initial appearance of growth can soon be frosted with purple veins and stems becoming apparent which subsequently limit growth. Although it is also true that the best growing paddocks are often the paddocks which were grazed at the start of spring, maintaining grass growth rates means maintaining an adequate level of leaf area (average cover of greater than 400kgDM/ha) all over the farm. It is also a priority to maintain an increasing level of grazed pasture into a herd that is increasing in size (percentage calved) and appetite as we move towards April and through to May. Therefore, rationing out the remaining pasture cover is the challenge for March.

The Spring Rotation Planner (SRP) is a great tool for spring management. However it is important to recognise the signs of a slow spring where average pasture cover starts to fall rapidly and grass growth rates are lower than anticipated. Taking stock of these signals will allow you to adequately adjust the spring rotation planner to survive a cold spring. Therefore, weekly farm walks will be a necessity from now on.

As for the stock, mineral issues have been a common problem this spring. Symptoms associated with the deficiency of selenium and iodine have been a repeated complaint. The deficiency symptoms at calving time associated with selenium are slow or lazy calvings, increased incidence of retained placenta, and increased susceptibility to infection. The deficiency symptoms associated with iodine are prolonged or lazy calvings with retained placenta, abortions and stillbirths, weak newborn calves which are ultimately more susceptible to scour, pneumonia and other infections.

Prolonged deficiency will also reduce the intake and milk production of the cow. Blood tests will aid you in diagnosing such a deficiency and most would opt for the oral supplementation of the mineral as soon as a deficiency is suspected. In the longer term, routine blood sampling and silage analysis can aid you in establishing your mineral status but as bloods only indicate the status of the diet today, and due to the impacts of anti-nutritional factors, identifying and resolving mineral issues can be a complex issue.

Mary Kinston is a discussion group facilitator and consultant, and farms with her husband in Co Kerry.

mkinston@ independent.ie

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