Grass growth has not been optimum for this time of year due to many parts of England experiencing a dry winter followed by the recent cold weather according to EBLEX livestock scientist, Liz Genever.
GRASS availability is currently a challenge for many producers as lambing and calving are well underway in most parts of England, says Dr Genever.
“When soil temperatures reach 5°C for five consecutive days, research has shown that they continue to rise. At this point fertiliser and nitrogen (N) efficiency is optimal. Although soil temperatures are starting to get towards 5°C in the south of England, they aren’t consistent enough to guarantee grass growth.
“The response rate to N applications, whether from a bag or from manure, will be increasing now it is a little warmer – perhaps up to 10 kg DM per kg N applied, and is likely to be highest on fields with good soil fertility and structure, responsive grasses and a south-facing aspect.”
Grassland can utilise 2.5kg N/ha/day (around 2 units of N/acre/day) under ideal weather conditions. Therefore when applying N to silage ground, the amount applied needs to be adjusted depending on cutting date to ensure the grass has enough time to utilise the nitrogen applied. If not, the quality of the silage can be affected.
Dr Genever says: “It is important to note that grass grows grass, so allowing grass to be grazed too low (below 3cm) and not allowing it to recover will affect future yields. The best way to avoid this problem and maintain animal performance is to offer supplementary feeds if sward heights are below 4cm.
“Don’t forget that in early spring, grass leaves are produced every seven to 10 days, so fields can recover quickly if the conditions are right.”
Measuring and recording grass, perhaps with a sward stick, is really important in the spring, as it will highlight grass availability and whether supplementary feeding is required. Plus it will help predict when the peak growth is starting.
“I’d also advise producers to keep an eye on fields that have been shut up since autumn to ensure the grass is utilised. Currently only around 50 per cent of grass is utilised. When the sward height is greater than 15cm, older leaves will shade the younger ones reducing the growth rate. The sward needs to be grazed before that point to make the best use of the grass and ensure growth continues.”
Angus Nelless relishes the challenge managing grass presents on the family-run Thistleyhaugh Farm, Morpeth, Northumberland which sees 390ha (964ac) managed under organic rules supporting 1500 Lleyn ewes, 120 Angus sucklers, 1500 contract reared pigs and a 6000 bird poultry enterprise.
He says: “I farm here with brother Duncan who looks after the sheep and father, Henry, who still likes to be involved actively. My mother, Enid, and sister-in-law Zoe run a the farmhouse as a successful B and B while my wife, Janice, runs a child-minding service from our home. The farm employs one full-time worker, Alan Lawton.”
The farm area can be divided into roughly three equal categories, says Mr Nelless. A third is traditional ridge and furrow, another third permanent pasture and riverside meadow, and the remaining third improved grass managed on a seven year rotation.
“This year the cropping includes 80 acres of red clover and ryegrass to be cut as silage and then grazed plus an area of turnips. New leys are under-sown in to spring oats.”
The challenge of managing grazing starts in autumn. Ewes are out-wintered and need sufficient nutrition in front of them at tupping in late November to maintain body condition and support the growing foetus.
“We monitor standing crops with a sward stick and analyse silage quality to allocate feed accurately. For the ewes we budget on 1.6kg DM/ewe/day through to mid pregnancy and have learnt to shut up fields with a residue of 1400kg DM/ha in autumn to recover.
He adds: “Ewes move on to turnips in March. In April they’ll be set-stocked at five to the acre in the lambing paddocks.”
On the cattle side bulling heifers are given priority for early grazing. The aim is to achieve growth rates of 1kg/head/day and a bodyweight of 380kgs before performance recorded Angus bulls are turned in on June 25.
Most finished stock is sold deadweight across both enterprises. In addition 1100 store lambs are bought in over winter and grazed on local farms.
He says: “As beef and sheep farmers I think we’ve neglected the potential of grass in the past and can learn much from the dairy sector on its utilisation. It’s possibly our greatest asset.”
At 26 Ben Walker is a keen supporter of paddock grazing having taken on responsibility for a 160-cow Holstein Friesian herd with an average yield of 9300 litres/cow supplying Arla from J and J Salter’s family-run 345ha (850ac) Hall Farm, Attleborough, Norfolk.
Mr Walker says: “The paddocks, 1.1km of sleeper tracks and 2km of water pipe were set up in 2012 after a review of the dairy. Before then we’d chased milk with Holstein genetics hitting yields of 11,000 litres/cow but farm accounts and DairyCo’s Milk Bench confirmed we produced a lot of milk but made little money.”
The way forward was autumn calving and paddock grazing. The mainly flat grazing platform occupies 68.5ha (170ac) close to the dairy buildings and 16/16 herringbone parlour.
“We’re an autumn calving herd achieving a tight 12 week block this year. The first 80 cows confirmed in-calf went out to graze during the day from mid-February as conditions allowed.”
This year 24ha (60ac) of nearby grass is for the early grazers, 28ha (69ac) at the far end is shut up for first cut and will be grazed thereafter, and 16ha (40ac) is used for calves and dry cows. “We also rent 17.8ha four miles away to rear in-calf heifers. And my brother, Tim, grows 29ha of forage maize in our arable rotation,” he explains.
J and J Salter is a family farming partnership. Jack and Jeanie Salter, who are life-long friend of the Walker family, invited Ben’s father, Ian, into the partnership in 1984. His wife, Sue, Ben and Tim have joined thereafter. A herdsman, Chris Mallett, helps run the dairy unit.
The farm is mainly flat, dry ground ranging from sand to sticky clay with low lying meadows prone to winter floods, continues Ben. “I’d like to think we’re getting to be good paddock grazers: I certainly get a buzz from budgeting grass. Our goal for this year is to increase further milk from forage.”
DairyCo figures show 3100 litres (32 per cent) comes from forage of which 18 per cent is attributed to grazed grass contributing to a margin over purchased feed of 22.4ppl.
“The early grazing group has a TMR feed at night. Once cows are out day and night they’re topped up with a simple buffer feed of maize and sugar beet pulp put out under fence lines in the paddock once a day.”
Ian Robertson runs a 1400-ewe enterprise producing store lambs at Chawton Park Farm on the North Hampshire Downs near Alton where a predominately Lleyn flock grazes 200ha (445ac) of permanent pasture managed largely within environmental schemes.
“Our challenge is to make the most of fresh grass growth when it arrives within the confines of HLS and ELS limits on seasonal stocking rates,” he says.
The all-grass business totalling 270ha (667ac) of owned and tenanted ground within five miles of the main holding is predominately heavy clay over chalk ranging from 120-220m above sea level and includes 17ha (42ac) of chalk ridge.
“A core flock of 1100 Lleyns is put to the tup in December having been weighed. Half are put back to a Lleyn to breed replacements; the remainder put to Charollais. A group of two-tooth ewes lamb in March having been housed. The main flock lambs outdoors in May on 10ha which is shut up in January to achieve covers of at least 4000kg DM/ha.”
At lambing a full-time helper come in for six weeks and a student for two weeks to assist. All lambs are weighed, electronically tagged and recorded at birth. Immediately thereafter single and twin bearing ewes are moved and graze in separate groups.
Lambs are weaned from August to September depending on grass growth and lamb weights. “Store lambs are sold through Ashford market in Kent in batches of 200-400 from August to November. We aim for 30kg live weight or above off grass,” he says.
From October to April 600 breeding ewes have grazing allocated daily in cells to meet their nutritional needs in order to maintain correct body condition. “I’m very keen on budgeting feed and like to think I’m getting better at it,” says Mr Robertson.
Winter forage for the early lambing ewes is made by a contractor who also supplies straw. There are other mouths to feed as the business has 70 red deer breeding hinds supplying a top end retailer with venison.
“Change is coming as our HLS agreement ends in February 2016 and the rules make it impractical for it to continue,” he explains. “We use very little fertiliser - just three tonnes of nitram last season - which mostly ends up on the lambing fields.”
Sophie Vance Kinnear runs a recently established autumn calving 152-cow dairy herd under contract with owners Robin and Barbara Young at the 121ha (300ac) Waterside Farm, near Dunblane, Perthshire.
The unit went out of dairy production two years ago having been set up for paddock grazing with a smaller herd. “Our biggest challenge is the cows - they’re a real mixed bag of breeds,” says Miss Vance Kinnear.
“We had to buy in from a number of farms and have imported others from the Netherlands. Breeds include Holstein, Friesian, Ayrshire and Jersey crosses. They’re all heifers and, fortunately, all in-calf.”
The herd calved down between August and November last year. Autumn calving suit’s the farm and the aim this year is to tighten the block further leading to a peak in milk production in late summer and early autumn. However, this may not suit its milk buyer - Graham’s The Family Dairy - which has recently changed contracts to level supply agreements.
The undulating farm sits at 350 feet above seas level and is relatively free draining given an annual rainfall of 1320mm (55in) thanks to an adjacent river, says Miss Vance Kinnear: “The land can sit cold in spring. For example, the grazing season is upon us but covers in late March were low at 1700kg DM/ha due to a soil temperature of 4.6 degrees which remains a real hindrance.”
To accommodate the larger herd most of the paddocks have been remapped and fenced into 2ha (5ac) blocks - sufficient for a day’s grazing, she says. “A light top dressing of 75kg/ha urea has been applied in the second to last week of March to kick-start growth.
“Our other issue relating to grass utilisation is the stedding sits at one end of the grazing platform. Fortunately, a quiet main road runs through the middle which we currently use as a cow track.”
Cows are giving an average of 19 litres/head/day at 4.8 per cent butterfat. The herd is milked through an 8/16 herringbone parlour. A simple ration is fed of grass silage, 3kg/head/day of prop-corn home-grown barley and a set rate of 4kg/head/day of concentrate fed in the parlour.
Miss Vance Kinnear says: “I like to keep it simple. We’re not growing barley this year as the extra cost of replacing it with more cake is marginal for a more stable product.”
Cows are largely housed in cubicles and despite buying in from a number of sources milk hygiene and cow health are good, she adds. SCCs of 80 are reported and the herd has been vaccinated for Lepto, IBR and is currently BVD negative.