Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Kerry farmers top 10 tips to make the most of spring grazing

Any dairy farmer can improve profitability according to our experts
Any dairy farmer can improve profitability according to our experts
Novice ploughman Cian Ryan (16) from Peddlers Cross taking part in the Vintage Confined Hydraulic Class at the annual ploughing match at Timoleague Co Cork. Picture Denis Boyle

Mary Kinston

After a rather mild and exceptionally dry winter, it seems that everyone made the most of the opportunity to get early-season nitrogen out, or slurry.

There was an odd debate whether or not to apply nitrogen fertiliser.

However, once the soil temperature is above 6°C, the ground isn't water-saturated, and the forecast is good, it's best to just to get on with it and apply.

While response rates to early- season nitrogen are often low, it kick-starts grass growth and, where applications are possible, it's an invaluable tool in spring grazing management.

I'd have to say that this opportunity isn't often available to us in Kerry.

Murphy's Law often means the heavens open once the January 15 start date for slurry application is reached.

The cumulative rainfall from November to January over the last five years in our part of north Kerry is shown in the table.

kery rainfall.PNG
From 2012 to 2016, the average winter rainfall was 600ml, with only 42pc of this amount having fallen in the 2016/17 season. For us, this was exceptionally drier than normal.

The positive effects of this is the noticeably blue-green grass growth, instead of the somewhat yellowing of waterlogged grass that we're used to. Fingers crossed, this trend continues into the spring. Such growth would facilitate cows getting out to grass early.

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I also hope this weather is sustained to a period when longer days, wind and sun allow the water that does fall to dissipate away. This would provide a welcome boost to profit, by facilitating high yields of higher-quality milk and lower feed costs.

A big wish list, I know, but here's hoping.

With this optimism in mind, it's time for all to get the spring rotation plan ready, and to assess the grass cover at the start of February so we know what we have to play with.

The spring rotation planner is an area-based allocation of grass. Effectively, what it does is ration out the reserve, with the reserve being the grass cover.

However, once grazed, the spring rotation planner also facilitates new spring grass growth and results in the cover available to sustain the cows at magic date: the point when there is enough grass growth to meet cow demand at pasture.

If you have a stocking rate of greater than 2.5 cows per hectare, then it's important to recognise that this is a period of conservative management decisions.

It should be a period when you err on the side of caution using your pasture cover mindfully.

One week of opening the cows up too much will potentially see you run short of pasture.


Targets are important, for example having grazed off 30pc of the lowish (500-800kg DM/ha) covers by the first week in March being one to aim for - if conditions allow.

This area provides the first week's grazing once the magic date is reached.

If the spring is good in terms of weather, missing this target will reduce the grass available at magic date.

However, this target mustn't be considered above all else. If the season is cold and slow, then grass growth will be poor whether you hit this target or not.

If grass growth is slow, so too must be the rotation which will result in the grass area and cover being grazed at a slower rate.

Again, we are rationing out the reserve until the magic date, but, unfortunately, the magic date moves between seasons.

However, when grass growth is poorer than expected, taking a chance that the magic date will come when planned can be a dangerous gamble.

A gamble of this nature might result in you introducing silage, a poorer-quality feed which knocks cows at peak yield on their backside late on in the season.

Here's my list of 10 tips to make the most of your spring grazing options:

  1. Assess your opening pasture cover
  2. Devise a spring rotation planner (SRP)
  3. Open on 100-day rotation aiming to finish the first grazing round by April 1-15 if the season is good
  4. Save all of your pasture covers of greater than 1,000kg DM/ha for March grazing
  5. Use a 12-hour wire at all times, as cows will eat more if you let them
  6. Establish a 3.5-4cm residual if conditions allow, but avoid poaching if at all possible
  7. In wet weather use on and off grazing, spur roads for access and supplement the cows well with concentrate and silage to support the desired grazing rotation
  8. Monitor your pasture cover at least every 10 days and assess your position against the targets on the SRP. If grass growth is slow, go slower
  9. Apply your second round of fertiliser early-mid March, considering the value of N, P and K in this application
  10. Feed the cow well throughout spring to mitigate against condition score loss. Where grass availability is low, support with concentrate and silage.

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

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