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Thursday 18 January 2018

Taking action now will give you an edge in the annual rotation gamble

Luke Barnett with the Show Champion at the Raphoe Livestock Mart Weanling Show and Sale on Tuesday last. Photo Clive Wasson

Mary Kinston

The impact of the wet September on cows and pasture is becoming noticeable.

Lameness, decline in milk production, increase in SCC, cows flying through covers, unsettled cows with loose dungs, pasture damage and shorter than desired grazing rotations have been experienced by most dairy farmers in some shape or form.

So considering the present grazing situation, what decisions need to be made? The first priority is autumn grazing management and the objectives here include:

  • achieving a good clean out for spring pasture quality
  • minimising pasture damage to maximise grass growth now and in spring
  • saving enough pasture cover for spring grazing
  • protecting cow body condition score

In a good autumn, with paddock closure starting in early October on an average rotation length of 45 days, a farmer will have closed around 60-65pc of the farm by November 1. This approach controls the decline of available pasture and creates a staggered feed wedge available for spring grazing.

However, this year - with a 35-day rotation being common - it will require in excess of 80pc of the grazing platform to be closed by November 1.

The simple consequence of this shorter 35-day grazing rotation is a faster decline in average pasture cover and thus the requirement to close the farm sooner.

Against that, the merits of this shorter rotation are reduced pasture damage in wet conditions and potentially better per cow production. Establishing a 45-day rotation will now require better ground conditions and increased levels of supplementation of meal and silage.

At this point we have to ask the hard questions of whether the weather will facilitate grazing to continue well into November and whether to reduce cow demand or if heavy supplementation would be better used now or later in lactation?

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When it comes to the weather and ground conditions, it could swing either way.

This is where you need to consider your personal situation and the merits of your grazing platform.

For example, on our farm the last three months have been exceptionally wet, yet our year to date rainfall is still trailing behind what had been received to the same period in the previous five years.

Saturated soil

So is there more rain to come? While it would be good to get a break from rain in October, if it returns to the law of averages, then we should expect the worst.

In this scenario, shorter and colder days combined with our heavy and, in some places, saturated soil conditions means that grazing conditions are likely to remain tender. The shorter grazing rotation is a more viable option for us than supplementing heavily to extend grazing into November.

However where a milking platform is free-draining and autumn/winter rainfall is less than what's typically received in the west, then November grazing may be more likely and the merit of supplementation now and 45 day rotation a better gamble.

And that's unfortunately what it comes down to - a gamble on future weather conditions. That said, you can tilt the odds in your favour by considering all the available options now.

For example, from this week onwards decisions need to be made on whether to milk on or off-load empty cows, when to dry off first lactation early calvers and when to hang up the clusters on substantially lame, high SCC and low producing cows.

Acting on these issues will reduce pasture demand, slow dwindling pasture reserves and guide supplementation to productive cows.

At this time I would also recommend that you avoid putting an odd bull or a few lame cows or even dry cows grazing a separate paddock on the milking platform to the milking cows as this will exacerbate problems where pasture conditions are tender and pasture cover is in decline.

Either house them or get them onto outside blocks to prioritise the available pasture to milking cows.

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


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