Weather extremes hitting both sides of the spectrum so far this year has made for a challenging grass growing season to date. Hannah Park finds out more.
Torrential downpours and storms followed by drought like condition across much of the country have not made for an easy start to the grazing season in many parts.
Several farmers across Great Britain (GB) taking part in the GrassCheckGB initiative reported more than 250mm of rainfall during February, with some farms in Wales recording in excess of 400mm. Met Office figures state the long-term UK February average for rain is 89mm.
Saturated ground conditions combined with cold weather made for minimal grass growth during this early part of the season, with GrassCheckGB farms recording grass growth rates averaging just 10.9 kg DM/ha (4.4 kg DM/acre) a day during March, compared to 23.6kg DM/ha (9.8kg DM/acre) a day in March 2019.
Excessively dry conditions in May and June followed, which saw growth rates restricted again by a soil moisture deficit.
The combined impact of these extreme conditions on grass growth across the GrassCheckGB farm network has seen average growth from March to the end of June 20 per cent lower in 2020, at 4.5t DM/ha (1.8t DM/acre), compared to 5.7t DM/ha (2.3t DM/acre) for the same period in 2019 – see table 1 for regional figures.
To manage pressure from significantly reduced grass growth this season, some farmers in the network have taken proactive steps to ensure sustainable grassland management.
Alongside regular monitoring of grass growth, quality and stock performance, these have included offering additional supplementation and selling some stock early in order to get the balance right.
Highlighting this, grass and forage scientist at AHDB Siwan Howatson says that while the aim is always to increase the amount of grazed forage in the diet rather than rely on supplements, in situations where rain is still needed, checking fodder and feed quality can pay dividends in supporting animal performance efficiently.
Ms Howatson says: “Analysing fodder quantity and quality as well as weighing and body condition scoring livestock regularly can help to detect any energy or protein shortages which may arise in the diet early so that prompt action can be taken.”
More recent improvements in weather conditions have meant many GrassCheckGB farmers are now seeing good recovery in growth rates towards the end of June. And although tonnes DM is behind the long-term average for grass grown up to the end of June, grass quality does not appear to have taken as bigger hit in comparison.
Dr Kathryn Huson of Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute (AFBI) says: “Grass metabolisable energy figures from GrassCheckGB farms since April have been higher than during the same period in 2019. And the average grass DM per cent has been consistently more than 20 per cent which will have helped with grass utilisation and achieving good post-grazing residuals.” - See table 2.
Organic beef grower and finisher Sam Newington farms across 180ha (445 acres) in total, finishing about 180-head of mainly native plus some dairy cross cattle per year.
Cattle are bought in at 12 months old and finished mostly off grass by 26 months and sold via ABP, with some also supplied to local butchers or direct through the farms boxed beef outlet.
Mr Newington switched from set stocking to a system incorporating grass growth monitoring and grazing management three years ago, in pursuit of a more profitable and sustainable way to manage available grassland.
The farm is now operating a rotational grazing system over three, 30ha (74 acre) blocks, generally moving animals every two to three days.
On the challenging weather conditions, Mr Newington says: “It was incredibly wet early in the year and with about a third of the farm being floodplain, that was challenging. Some of that ground has suffered with saturation, with productivity in some parts still low now as a result.
“May was probably the driest for us, and for quite a lot of month we grew about half the grass we had the previous year. This has also impacted first cut silage yield, which is about 14 per cent down on the year.”
To ease pressure on grass that was available, the earlier turned out group remained on the bale grazing system for longer than would have been the case when it was wet, while a number of cattle were slaughtered earlier when conditions got very dry.
Mr Newington says: “With the growth and quality figures, we are able to plan and feed budget well in advance now, which is useful. Repeated bouts of heavy rain we are experiencing now has meant growth has all but recovered and is almost growing better now than it was during the same period last year.”
Aled Evans runs the 162ha (400 acre) Rest Farm near Whitland, Carmarthen, where a key focus is production from pasture.
Dairy beef rearing and finishing forms the main enterprise, with about 480 cattle on-farm at any one time.
Cattle are bought in at 14 to 40 days old, and finished off grass in the main at 20-24 months old. The farm also runs a 300-head outside lambing flock of Romney and Highlander ewes and about 1,500 store lambs which are bought in and finished annually.
Rotational platforms are now set up for the cattle and sheep, totalling 50ha (124 acres) in area during peak grazing season. To even up supply and demand during the challenging conditions earlier in the year, prolonged on-off grazing, selling some cattle as stores and supplementing grass with haylage were all undertaken.
Mr Evans says: “In May, we would expect to grow between 110-120kg DM/ha, but it was more like 60kg DM/ha in the early part of the month, dropping back to about 40kg DM/ha when conditions were very dry for about six weeks.
“Growth was quite significantly below demand at that point which was challenging. When we could see it was heading that way, we sold some cattle as stores to pull back demand and ended up feeding some haylage along fence lines.
“After first cut, about 20 acres was brought back into the rotation to try and lengthen the rest period. A nitrogen treatment was also used once some rain did arrive, to try and build average farm cover back up quickly.”
Gathering data on growth and inputting into on-farm software, Mr Evans says, proved useful to highlighting early on that action was needed to mitigate against poorer growing conditions.
“It has made us more proactive,” he says. “Rather than getting to a point where we have run out of food and have to therefore buy in expensive feeds to compensate in a hurry.”
The farm grew just over 15t DM/ha (6t DM/acre) last year, which is looking to be back to about 13t DM/ha (5.2t DM/acre) according to farm management software, Mr Evans says, adding that grass quality so far has not been an issue.