The rain has arrived but the drought is far from over

Dairy Farmer Patrick Murphy celebrates the arrival of rain at his dairy farm at Timoleague, West Cork. Picture Denis Boyle
Dairy Farmer Patrick Murphy celebrates the arrival of rain at his dairy farm at Timoleague, West Cork. Picture Denis Boyle

Mary Kinston

I would be tempted to say that many felt like cracking open a bottle of something after recent rains.

However, try not to get too excited just yet as it's depressing to say that a drought can be considered "broken" only when there has been enough rain to take the soil to within about 15pc of field capacity.

That generally means more than 50mm and many are still a long way off having received that much rain yet. Unfortunately, I also need to heed a warning that even when substantial rain has fallen, problems won't be over for at least anothe two to three weeks and may temporarily get somewhat worse.

So we need to prepare. First rule is that silage is golden - actually this applies to any form of forage. Maybe at this stage with the prices fellows are paying it may feel like your bidding for gold. So why? When in the midst of a drought the number one priority is to protect winter feed reserves as much as possible.

Also be aware that the biggest bang for your buck or silage, will be to feed the cows heavily once sufficient rains arrive. In the meantime, the second rule is that it's imperative that you graze out the farm completely before supplementing grass for silage.

Essentially you'll know when the farm is fully grazed out because there will be no visual difference between paddocks that cows are due to graze and those just grazed. If you have more than this, keep holding your 30-day rotation and fill the deficit with meal as best you can.

Remember here to consider rotation on an area basis so this refers to 1/30th of the farm grazed per day. Where the deficit seems too big you must now start to seriously consider the disposal of all known culls and potentially the use of once a day (OAD) milking. An early scan may be the order of the day as we aim to protect next year's herd. So why does all this matter? After significant rain, up to half the grass available on the farm will be lost because its dead and it will then decay quickly.

You may think this wouldn't matter but I stress that cows were being fed to a degree of contentment from this dead material, just as if you were offering hay. Once it disappears your cows will no longer be content, and this will become very apparent. Therefore they will need some form of forage.

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After this the dry matter content of new grass growth will be low (potentially below 15pc) because of its rapid growth, so supplement will still be needed even when there is grass available.

Generally you will need around 100-150kgDM per cow so have at least half a bale of silage per cow ready for this period.

It seems that when there's any sign of rain that all farmers seem to contemplate and debate spreading fertiliser. There's an argument to both spread and to wait. Simply put you can still get a response although there will be substantial pool of nitrogen in the soil. However, beware of nitrate poisoning. This is a risk because of this rise in soil nitrogen levels and when combined with the new growth especially in reseeds after rain with cool, cloudy weather there's potential for nitrates to accumulate in the leaves. To avoid this using a longer rotation of 21 days will help, ensure cows aren't hungry when put into high risk pastures and feed your forage supplement first.

Finally whilst drought rarely kills grass in this part of the world, and generally results in temporary browning of the sward there is potential for it to happen and burnt patches will inevitably fill with low feed value grasses and weeds. If you feel pasture restoration is needed because your seeing a lot of sward pulling and lack of response to rain test the pasture by using the 50pc rule where you place your boot in a minimum of 20 places across the paddock and if there aren't live ryegrass tillers present at the front of your boot in more than 50pc of cases, the paddock needs renovation. Obviously you will have to consider the availability of finance for this but there may be an argument to get seed promptly or have it on hand ready to initiate this where you suspect it to be an issue. We often forget about the pests associated with pasture and at this stage its hard to contemplate whether frit fly, leather jackets or slugs will be a problem to drought-stressed and vunerable swards, but give it some consideration if you see certain paddocks struggling to respond to the change in circumstances.

Although no one can predict when a farm will break free from this drought, being prepared for some further short-term hardship may reduce the stress of what could come.

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

Indo Farming

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