With silage clamps short of good quality forage across the country and recent rains kick-starting grass growth again, livestock farmers will be looking to use the next few weeks wisely to make up for lost ground.
With grass growing again, independent grassland specialist Dr George Fisher says a good plan is to cut what you have as soon you can and bale it as this will remove the seed heads which have been produced in abundance due to drought stress.
He adds producers need to gear themselves up for a good autumn and plan accordingly to take advantage of all opportunities.
“While there is a case for applying additional N fertiliser, the best plan is to first leave the nutrients you have already applied to do their work.
“If you have used ammonium nitrate [AN] it will still be available to plants but those who applied urea may have lost most of the available N by now, so this may need a top up with AN.
“Keep your nerve after this recovery cut and then go for a proper silage cut in four to five weeks’ time and then another one after the same period if you can, even if this is late October/early November.
“Do not use more than 50kg N per hectare, plus a light slurry application per cut.
Autumn grass will naturally have a high nitrogen and low sugar content, so make sure you sample and analyse the silage, and get nutritional advice on balancing the silage in a total mixed ration.”
While Nitrate Vulnerable Zone rules say no manufactured fertiliser N should be applied to grassland after September 15, this might be allowed if there are exceptional circumstances, he says.
“You will need to be guided and have your proposal justified by a FACTS-qualified adviser, but there will definitely be a strong case for applying autumn fertiliser this year to build up essential forage stocks.”
Mark Garrett, CF Fertilisers northern regional manager, says producers considering this should proceed with care.
“If you are considering doing anything outside of the regulations you should always talk with the Environment Agency first, so pick up the phone and explain the situation.
“Of course, you should be particularly careful in fields where a late N application might potentially produce a nitrogen loss, such as those close to water courses and boreholes or where soils are on sloping ground.”
“An ammonium nitrate fertiliser should always be used to reduce the risk of nitrogen loss through volatilisation and it is a good idea to make sure the fertiliser contains sulphur to take advantage of yield and quality benefits.”
All told, there are several possible ways to build forage stocks, but the key is not to waste the opportunity the next few weeks present, says Mr Garret.
“The safest bet for many is to manage nutrient use, grazing and silage cuts carefully to harvest as much grass as possible while being mindful of the limitations and pitfalls possible in autumn.
“Longer term, many producers will have to take a serious look at how they can adjust their management to make sure their production of home-grown feeds is as risk free as possible.
“You cannot avoid the fact those using nutrients properly, reseeding regularly and taking more cuts have fared better this year than those who have not invested in their grassland in recent years.”
Another issue to keep in mind is the lack of rainfall may have left swards patchy and this could let grass-weeds and more pernicious weeds, such as docks and ragwort, move in, he warns.
“Autumn weed control could be a wise move so you need to be mindful of this in established leys and be particularly vigilant if attempting an autumn reseed.
“If you are going for brassicas and root crops to make up for forage shortfalls, make sure your seedbed is good enough and make use of the dry weather to cultivate and ensure soil condition is optimised.
“You will need to ensure you are on top of crop nutrient requirements for these, especially if they are not part of your usual management.”
Maximise grazing opportunities
According to George Fisher, getting the most out of grazing over the next few weeks will involve producers remaining as flexible as possible.
“For paddock grazing, it is important to get the grass wedge back and achieve closing target covers for the farm where possible. For those who set stock, consider strip grazing with a back fence so you get the chance to come round and graze again if the season extends.
“If you can graze for three or four hours in the day before conditions stop play, then do it. The 2-4kg grass dry matter each cow will eat in that time will help preserve forage stocks and reduce reliance on more expensive brought-in feeds.”
Getting the most out of autumn grass
1. Cut as soon as practical and keep cutting
2. Use ammonium nitrate and sulphur strategically to keep grass growing
3. Graze flexibly and for as long as you can
4. Watch out for weed growth in drought-hit leys
5. Be mindful of grass quality and balance winter rations accordingly