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Let's hope that the grass will be greener on the far side of spring

MORE THAN 90pc of Ireland is covered in it. It has variously been described as Ireland's oil, gold and farming advantage. All winter, livestock farmers dream of its return. This spring, there's little or none of this prized commodity in the fields. I refer to grass.

The growing and grazing of grass in Ireland is now getting the most detailed and forensic attention, especially from Teagasc. For some people, grass is the holy grail. Others are less smitten. I'm in the middle, blinded neither to its virtues nor its faults.

When analysing a venture, it's a common practice to carry out a Swot (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis. I have done my Swot analysis on grass. Here is my effort:

  • Strengths: Low cost; self-fed; balanced and complete food; working with nature; carbon footprint neutral; and naturally recycled dung.
  • Weaknesses: Growth variable and unpredictable; usage varies with weather and soil type; variable in quality; demands detailed management; grass silage is high labour and variable in quality.
  • Opportunities: Gives Ireland a competitive advantage in milk, beef and sheepmeat; potential marketing advantage from grass-based products; health benefit in milk/beef off grass; and new varieties giving a longer grazing season.
  • Threats: Poaching; grass tetany/bloat; grass parasites; mineral and trace element deficiency or excess; silage effluent; even cheaper grass-based production elsewhere; and low-cost cereals and by-products

The strengths enjoyed by grass are very powerful. Grass in the diet is especially beneficial to dairy cows. Equally, well-managed grassland gives our farmers a potentially big cost advantage over our counterparts in the rest of the EU.

The disadvantage of grass can be summed up in the fact it is as variable as the weather. And what's more variable than the weather in Ireland?

The last three summers are a case in point. Livestock farmers in heavy soils had nightmares trying to use grass, but this only serves to illustrate its importance in the first instance.

The cold of this winter also highlights the downside of over-reliance on grass. The brown fields of Ireland are more akin to the norm over continental and Eastern Europe, from Romania to Estonia, where winter temperatures of -10°C are expected.

In recent milder Irish winters, grass continued to grow. Some farmers became expert at fostering this growth and using the grass. They exploited the fact it takes grass to grow grass, and rotational grazing promotes good reserves in grass roots, which, in turn, allows winter growth. Grass breeders have come up with new varieties, which deliver improved early- and late-season growth.

But all this has been halted this winter. Many fields have less grass now than in November. It will be interesting to see if the January freeze killed off any of the newer ryegrass strains selected for early growth. Ryegrasses that flourish in Ireland are unable to hack the winters of Eastern Europe or North and South America.

The technique of on-off grazing is most suited to Irish dairying. Some dairy herd- owners have become superb grassland managers. Beef, too, can do much more to exploit grass, but many finishers would prefer to work with a high-quality by-product that is cheap, consistent and easier to manage than grass.

The perception is that having livestock at grass is clean and wholesome and that housed cattle are in an environment of infection, if not in filth. The reality is that livestock at grass are defecating and urinating on their own dining table. Housed cattle may look dirtier, but are exposed to less parasites. Green grass can be populated with damaging stomach worms, lung worms, liver fluke and blood-sucking and disease-filled ticks. Equally, cows on grass can drop dead from grass tetany or bloat.

But there is only one thing worse than grass filled with all those threats. That is not having any grass at all. Let's hope that normal grass service soon resumes -- in the fields but not on the lawns.

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