Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Rains have put an end to the grazing season in the west


Mary Kinston

Doing the farm walk in recent weeks has been more like a moon walk as it seemed I was going backwards rather than forwards at times as I squelched along, with my wellies struggling to get traction on the wet ground.

As I took a moment while walking and listened carefully, I found that waterlogged ground also makes a disheartening popping noise, which confirmed that grazing is not an option for a paddock in this situation. As a result of the wet weather in the west, the grazing season has finished up on many farms, with our cows now housed in order to save soil structure and limit poaching damage.

We made a conscious effort not to build up too much grass this autumn, and also to graze the wetter paddocks sooner rather than later. But, in the end, we are still faced with covers of more than 1,450kg DM/ha when November growth is considered, which is too high to be considered closed for winter.

Ideally, dry weather would give some relief in the next few weeks, which would allow cows out to graze off these heavy covers before December and give some recovery before grass growth stops and the cold weather of winter kicks in.

However, a dry spell may be wishful thinking in the short term and it's possible that we will be forced to graze off heavy autumn covers during winter.

While it may reduce winter burn and tiller loss, you should expect lower growth rates from these paddocks in spring, as removal of the cover in winter exposes the remaining plant tissue to low temperatures, which causes a physiological shock to the plant.

Any paddock grazed in the depth of winter is unlikely to have any available pasture for grazing until April or May, so make sure this area is removed from your feed budget and spring rotation plan.

For farms where grazing conditions are still good, it is likely that you will be finishing up grazing in the next few weeks, with an aim to leave an average cover of 400-750kg DM/ha. The ideal cover to close on the milking platform is dependant on your requirement for grass cover in spring.

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This feed budget is determined by stocking rate and the date of turnout. Aim to minimise the risk of winter kill by not closing covers of more than 1,600kg DM/ha by December 1.

Special consideration should also be given to the pasture covers on this year's reseeds, as these often grow more grass than the average paddock in the autumn and also need to be encouraged to tiller in both autumn and next spring. They can actually thin out due to heavy covers and winter kill, so closing these at closer to 1,000kg DM/ha can be more desirable.

Dry cow management is the next issue, and a few thoughts towards drying off, body condition score targets and mob management all spring to mind.

Udder infections during the dry period can be minimised by the events at drying off, and Animal Health Ireland has produced some straight-talking guidelines to aid you in this process if you have not dried off already (they are available at

Once dried off, it's important to visually -- don't handle -- check the cow's udders each day for a week, to identify any cow with a swollen quarter. If swollen, check for heat and pain, and if you suspect an infection treat accordingly, though do not strip or touch normal quarters.

Finally, as I walked through our cows and other herds this week, I can confidently say that condition score is improving, which will be the case for most of you when cows are dry.

However, there is still an odd cow in most herds which is lean, with evident notches along the backbone, very visible short ribs, angular hip and pin bones, and depressed tail head. If in-calf, these animals need to gain more weight than the rest of the herd and will need extra feed prior to the last month of pregnancy to do so.

Therefore, consider options for identifying and separating off thin cows in the next few weeks and feeding accordingly to maximise their performance in 2012.

Dr Mary Kinston is a farm consultant based in Kerry. Email

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