Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

Scarce grass supplies as drought problems grow

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Drought conditions on farms across the southern half of the country have escalated in the past week, with farmers on the driest land now engaged in a daily battle to conserve scarce grass supplies.

However, some relief will be on the horizon, with rain forecast for most areas tomorrow – heaviest in the west – and thunderstorms due to become a more common feature nationwide by the end of the week.

Soil moisture deficits have continued to increase, with 75pc of the country recording a deficit above 50mm (two inches).

The worst hit areas are in the south and southeast, with farms in counties Kilkenny, Waterford, Cork, Tipperary, Wexford and Carlow now recording deficits of over 75mm (three inches).

Even wetter farms are beginning to feel the pinch, with grass growth rates tightening, albeit 7-10 days behind dry farms.

Growth rates of 10-20kg DM/ha were estimated at the Teagasc Greenfield farm, while three farms in New Ross, Co Wexford averaged 20kg DM/ha, while Moorepark grew 15-20kg. Wetter soil farms at Emly, Co Tipperary recorded 45kg DM/ha and 39kg at Dingle, Co Kerry.

Cow performance is being affected by drought, with milk protein levels lower than expected for this time of the year and, in some cases, lower milk yields too.

Less grass in the diet, lower quality grass and possible heat stress are among the factors affecting milk protein and yield, a meeting of the Teagasc-led fodder taskforce was told on Thursday.

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Ensuring adequate water supplies for dairy herds is a major challenge and some farmers have resorted to drawing additional supplies from local rivers to boost the farm supply. Measurement of water intake on the Greenfield farm showed that the cows drank 100 litres of water for every 20 litres of milk produced.

Farmers are also reporting an increase in health problems due to heat stress, with incidences of pneumonia in older cattle. Concentrate feeding has been ramped up to 6-7kg/hd on dairy farms, while silage stocks are being used to buffer grass supplies in an effort to slow the rotation on farms.

The use of this already scarce resource could have grave consequences for the winter fodder stores on many farms.

The recent Teagasc fodder census found that the average shortfall on fodder-deficient farms was 23pc.

However, the gap between supply and demand could widen significantly as first-cut silage is fed this week. This will be exacerbated by the fact that second-cut silage yield expectations have been slashed by the current drought.

Teagasc nutritionist Dr Siobhan Kavanagh said an 80-cow dairy herd eating 33pc of the diet as silage for the next six weeks would consume 80-100t of silage. This could increase the farm silage deficit for next winter by 8-10pc.

Dairy specialist John Maher urged farmers to feed bales instead of pit silage where possible, because of high levels of pit wastage when only small quantities of silage are removed.

"Baled silage can be fed at any stage after wrapping but the secret is to ensure that the bales are eaten almost immediately or certainly within a day," he advised.

For advice on managing the drought, see page 9.

Irish Independent