Use extra grass to cut your costs this spring time

Willie Wallace feeding Friesian cows on the family farm at Crettyard, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey/
Willie Wallace feeding Friesian cows on the family farm at Crettyard, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey/
Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

"I'm not going to spread any early fertiliser this spring because I've heaps of grass": this is a comment that we're starting to hear a lot of lately. But is this a wise decision?

Let us take a look at what has happened this winter so far.

We have had unprecedented volumes of rain since the start of November, we have had an exceptionally mild winter with average grass growth rates of approximately 6kgs dry matter grown per hectare (DM/Ha) and as a result we now have large quantities of grass on farm.

So the majority of nitrogen that was available for growth has either being leached out of the ground or else has been taken up by the plant due to the higher than normal winter growth rates.

Coupled with this, when these heavy covers are grazed off, the paddock is probably going to be white at the base and will require more nitrogen than normal to recover quickly.

At the Irish Grassland Association conference last month, Michael O'Donovan, head of grassland science, Teagasc, Moorepark, showed how farmers who spread 70 units of nitrogen (N) before April 1 last year grew 1t of grass dry matter extra per hectare in the spring period compared to their comrades who spread 30 units/ac in the same period.

This was on based on farmers using the Teagasc Pasturebase system. If we take a farmer with 40ha, then this equates to 40t of extra grass. Replacing this grass with purchased concentrate would cost in the region of €10,000.

Those who spread this extra N also had double the peak growth rates of their comrades in April.

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The general advice would be to spread 23units of nitrogen as soon as conditions permit. Urea would be the preferred product of choice.

Urea costs 70c/kg of nitrogen, while CAN has a cost of €1/kg, and trials have shown they will both give the same level of growth response.

Slurry can also contribute towards the spring nitrogen, 2500gallons of slurry/acre should contribute 15-20 units of nitrogen.

All of the farm should be blanket spread now, even the very heavy covers. The balance of the Nitrogen should be spread in a single application (46units) in March.

Early turnout

"Are you sailing a bit close to the wind by aiming to have 40pc of your farm grazed by the end of February?" was the question asked of Kerry man Shane Crean, farming in Doneraile, Co Cork, at the Grassland conference.

Shane's response was "We feel it is better to graze 40pc of the farm in February and feed silage at the end of March/early April if necessary. In the past we were grazing 25-30pc in February and continuously feeding silage to "stretch grass", it depresses growth rate and pushes the first round beyond magic day.

"You find yourself "wading" through heavy covers to finish the first rotation whilst the February grazed plots are growing too strong.

"We feel that because of the way we have altered N fertiliser application pattern and graze a greater proportion of the farm in February, the Spring Rotation Planner is vital, as grass that is grazed grows quicker.

"As a result of this we have increased our spring DM production from 668kg DM/ha in 2013 to 1,211kg DM/ha in 2015."

Opening covers on farm this spring are well ahead of normal with many farmers reporting average farm covers of 900-1000 DM kgs/ha.

If a farmer with a stocking rate of 1 cow/acre was to let cows out to grass in early February on these farms, then there should be enough grass to provide approximately 11kgs of grass DM/cow/day (assuming the farmer grazes covers of around 1,000kgs DM initially, leaving the heavier covers until the first two weeks in March).

If we add 3kgs of meal to the cow's diet, then there is no requirement for silage in the diet.

A freshly calved cow will only consume 11kgs of DM in the week after calving.

This will increase by 1kg/week until peak. Due to current ground conditions, this may consist of two sessions of grazing consisting of three hours after each milking, with cows being brought into shed at 9pm in the evening with only minimal silage to keep them content.

Heavy Soils

On heavier soils, common sense has to come into play. If soils are waterlogged or un-trafficable, then obviously you can't spread fertiliser and you can't turn cows out.

Farmers on these soils need to be opportunistic. As a colleague of mine recently described it "Graze as much as you can, for as long as you can, when you can".

Statistically, February is a drier month than March. If you get an opportunity to get cows out in February, then take that opportunity. If cows have to be re-housed in March, then so be it. At least you have a portion of the farm grazed which is now growing grass for the second rotation.

With regard to early nitrogen, my experience is that farmers on heavy soils have a "dry" half to the farm and a "wet" half.

We should be aiming to get the 70 units out on the dry half and every farmer is going to have to use their own judgement regarding the wet half.

There is no point spreading fertiliser if there is water splashing up off the wheels.


There has never been as much grass on farms as this spring. Use it to your advantage to reduce costs this spring. The nitrogen you spread in February and March is what will grow the grass in April.

Use the Teagasc Spring Rotation Planner to budget grass this spring.

Joe Kelleher is a business and technology advisor with Teagasc, Newcastle West, Co Limerick

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