'Early grass is money' - Limerick farm where a new soil and grass management programme is paying impressive dividends


Philip Ruttle
Philip Ruttle

Martin Ryan

They were surrounded by snow-capped hills and lashed by intermittent heavy showers of hail, but the dairy cows were still grazing contentedly on Fortview farm in Rathkeale last Thursday.

That they were out grazing at all is testament to good soil management on the farm where targeting optimum nutrient level is a priority.

The benefit of the "early bite" has seen Philip Ruttle (pictured right) save €2.70/cow/day, since the cows went on to grass on January 22, which is equivalent to up to €1,000/week for a 50 cow grazing herd.

"It has been a difficult year for many farmers, but where the nutrients are good, grass has been growing and pastures are recovering," John Maher, Teagasc specialist, Grass 10 manager, Moorepark told the 80 farmers who braved the conditions to attend the seminar at Fortview. Early grass is money, explained local Teagasc advisor, Padraig Fitzgerald.

He said that while Spring 2018 has presented challenges for both the industry and dairy farmers "there were also lots of opportunities".

Met Eireann rainfall measurement at nearby Shannon Airport shows that January was almost double the long-term average and nearly four times January 2017, while for the first half of February rainfall has been almost par with the long- term average for the month.

Padraig Fitzgerald said that farmers can turn early and compact calving into reducing the work load in the spring months and making more profit.

"With more compact calving and getting the cows out to grass early there is an opportunity to grow more grass and improve your margins, because you are setting up for a good grass growing year and the more grass that you can get into your cows the more profit you will have at the end of the year. The objective is to utilise one tonne D/M per hectare in the first rotation. The quality grass in the spring is the best feed that you can get into the cows, it is high energy, high in protein and will give high solids" he added.

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Planning for early grazing commenced when the paddocks were closed on December 1 with a cover of 607kg/DM/ha and a turnout on January 22, the grass cover was 682 kg/DM/ha. On January 19, slurry at a rate of 3,500 gl/ac was applied to 20pc of the ground and 80pc of the grazing area received a dressing of 26 units of urea on January 29. Concentrate feeding has been reduced to 5kg/hd/day since going on to grass.

John Maher said that for those who have got out early this year there has been a reasonable response so far and there is recovery in grazed paddocks.

"The simple principal is that when the cows are on grass, they are feeding themselves, and they are spreading the slurry. It is more economical and will leave more money in your pocket. When the cows are in the yard they are costing you money in feeding and you have to spread the slurry," he said.

To maximise grass intake, daily milking is planned for 7am and 4pm with the cows out grazing for a couple of hours after the evening milking before returning to the yard for night.

Teagasc Specialist, Grass 10 Manager, John Maher, explaining the colour coded mapping for farm fertility.
Teagasc Specialist, Grass 10 Manager, John Maher, explaining the colour coded mapping for farm fertility.

Grass 10 programme

The farm is one of the Teagasc Grass 10 programme, which was rolled out nationwide by the advisory service last year for a four year campaign, to increase grass utilisation on Irish livestock farms (dairy, beef and sheep), with the objective of achieving 10t grass DM/ha/year utilised and ten grazings/paddock/year.

Philip Ruttle's father, Brian is a direct descendant of one of the families who came to the area in 1710 as part of a Palatine settlement, one of two such settlements in the country, with each farmer being allocated seven Irish acres and a house.

Within the following half century a number of the families emigrated to the United States. Today, Brian told me, that there are fewer of the original families left and the farms are much larger.

The Ruttle farm consists of 130 adjusted acres with a stocking level of 2 LU/ha over the whole farm (2.4 LU/ha on the milking platform) and the target for completion of the first round of the paddocks is April 7.

The limestone base of the land is a great asset for both drainage and growth in seasons like this and aids grazing the land without damage.

Colour-coded and digitised maps streamline fertiliser application

"Every farmer should have one" was the advice of Teagasc specialist, Grass 10 manager, John Maher and it may be that colour coded digitised maps will become an essential guide to fertiliser application on farms.

The maps showing the state of fertility in each field at a glance, by clearly defined colour coding, are now available to farmers who have soil testing carried out, and the benefits are already being praised.

"The map can be laminated and hung in the parlour and when a contractor comes to apply fertiliser, hand it to him and it will show him exactly where to go and the application required," he added, explaining the latest advance in technology to farmers at the Grass 10 Farm Walk on Philip Ruttle's farm near Rathkeale.

He explained that based on stocking rate on the farm in conjunction with soil sampling results the findings can be translated on to a map for the farm to be used as a plan for the correct application.

Converting from a traditional drystock farm the soil fertility was not in a good state "because stock levels were low and I probably didn't realise the situation was as bad as it was until the print out and the map is a great benefit," said Philip Ruttle.

"Where the soil nutrient level is not right the grass will run out of kick and will not recover after grazing. It is alright when the weather is nice and easy, fine and sunny, but when the weather is against you and your back is to the wall, that is when you are going to benefit from the correct nutrient level," said John Maher.

Four colours are used in compiling each map. Darkest is for Soil Index 4, high level of nutrient and a slightly lighter dark colour is for Index 3 indicating a "satisfactory" level. Index 2 is"low" and is identified by a light colour and the almost white coloured fields are Index 1 "very low".

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