Farm Ireland

Sunday 19 November 2017

Don't get caught out when planning the spring rotation

Mary Kinston

The much-needed spell of dry weather has lifted moods. Cows are out day and night and maiden heifers are out grazing on farms right across the country.

Farmers on wetter ground they have been waiting for this weather for a long and weary year now, but it's amazing, given the right conditions, how quickly things can change.

However, is there a risk of us all getting ahead of ourselves? With such good grazing conditions there is still the potential risk that we might graze too much too fast.

The spring rotation plan is a great tool and if grazing conditions were good to fair and grass growth was living up to expectation, you would roughly graze around 30pc of the farm by February 28, 60pc by March 15, and would be finishing the first rotation around April 4-8.

If grass growth is poor then you slow things down, and use longer rotations. However, a big dilemma that farmers have faced on the wetter ground is that grazing didn't commence until around February 20.

Aiming for 30pc grazed by February 28 in this situation is risky territory, as you have also forgone the potential grass re-growth that February had to offer.

So a revised plan is to start off with a rotation of 80 days and give yourself an extra four to seven days in the first rotation, grazing into April to make up for this loss. This would revise the area grazed to approximately 10pc grazed by February 28, 35pc grazed by March 15, 70pc grazed by March 31 and the remainder grazed by around April 10.

If grass covers are falling fast and growth is slow, then this revised plan may be the way to go. However, if the average pasture cover remains strong, above 450kgDM/ha, and grass growth is meeting expectations, stick to the original plan.

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The objective of spring grazing management is simply to ration out the available grass until grass growth exceeds supply.

Adopt slow rotations when grass growth is below demand, using supplement to fill the gap, and fast rotations when grass growth exceeds demand.

Most farmers report that calf rearing has started well this year, although there is that niggling feeling that the trouble is yet to come as problems associated with scours like to rear their heads in months two and three of calf rearing.

John Shirley's article last week certainly pointed out the characteristics of a good calf rearer, with a nurturing nature, patience and attention to detail the standout traits of a decent operator.

But even with the best will in the world, some calves certainly do test your patience. For example, there is always the one calf that seems to think you're trying to poison it as you repeatedly encourage it towards the nipple of a feeder.

On the other hand, there is certainly a sigh of relief when a calf takes to suckling the feeder immediately with no instruction, just like a duck to water.

Regarding the weather, calf rearing is another area where one may be tempted to get carried away.

The opportunity to bunch calves together and feed them as a larger group of 20-40, and possibly get them out to grass early, certainly poses a great opportunity to reduce workload. However, the cold and wet weather we received in April last year confirmed to me the benefit of letting calves out on grass when they are fit and ready.

When a calf starts to use the energy consumed to keep warm, liveweight gain significantly drops and it takes weeks, if not months, of good feeding and weather to get them going again. This has a significant impact on achieving liveweight targets and the calves are generally more prone to other ailments.

Make sure you hold off the temptation to let calves out where there is no option for them to return inside for shelter until spring has truly arrived.

Dr Mary Kinston is an independent dairy discussion group facilitator and consultant. Email:

Irish Independent