Slow start to Grass Growth for 2008
Although the autumn and winter period has seen the dairy industry benefit from improved milk prices on the back of a buoyant world market, the dramatic cost increases of both concentrate and fertiliser inputs has brought this into perspective.
Andrew Dale and Michael Wills monitoring the grazing of spring calving cows at Hillsborough, the group is currently grazing for 6 hours daily.
Nevertheless, with the beginning of another grazing season just around the corner, milk producers should switch their focus onto maximising the utilisation of grazed grass as soon as possible. Unfortunately, weather conditions since early March have done little to encourage early season grazing, with many farms seeing ground conditions deteriorate from what was a very promising position in late February. The increased price and limited availability of fertiliser, combined with the period of unsettled weather, has led to caution amongst farmers, with many reluctant to start spreading the first fertiliser. This is understandable, yet being overcautious could lead to problems at turnout, especially as ground and growing conditions can change rapidly at this time of the year.
A key aspect of good grassland management is effective grass budgeting, and this will be particularly important this year in order to maximise the full benefits of our lowest cost feed – grazed grass. To assist farmers with grass budgeting and general grazing management, GrassCheck – jointly funded by AgriSearch and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), will again be monitoring grass growth rates throughout Northern Ireland this season. This year grass growth will be measured at six sites across Northern Ireland: Aghadowey, Antrim, Hillsborough, Loughgall, Portaferry and Fintona. For the 2008 growing season, grass growth will be cut every week from a three week regrowth, with three of the sites situated on commercial farms. Nitrogen fertiliser rates for 2008 are set at 281kgN per ha (reduced from 289kgN per ha in 2007).
An additional feature of the GrassCheck project for the 2008 season has been the introduction of soil moisture and soil and air temperature recording at each of the six locations. This will provide a vital insight into the range of soil conditions at various times of the year across the province. This data will appear periodically in the bulletin during the season.
Early season measurements in 2008 already indicate some key differences across the province. Following the initial trim-off and fertiliser application in mid-February, the sites are now being visited weekly. The site in Portaferry is currently recording a growth of 8 kg DM per ha per day, with the next highest growth of 2.8 kg DM per ha per day being recorded in Antrim. Grass growth over the winter period was also recorded across the sites, and from 9 November 2007 to the 11 February 2008 the highest recorded growth was 3.0 kg DM per ha per day, achieved at Portaferry. The other sites all averaged between 0.5 and 1.0 kg DM per ha per day during these winter months.
While the 2008 grazing season has been a slow starter, GrassCheck bulletins will assist in building confidence once growing and grazing conditions improve. In addition to the weekly press bulletins the information is also updated weekly on the AFBI website at www.afbini.gov.uk
and at www.ruralni.gov.uk/livestock/grass
Preparation at this time of the year is essential to aid the transition from housing to grazing, and time spent out assessing the grazing area now is essential to allow ground and grass covers to be assessed. Grazed grass remains the cheapest feed for producing milk, yet this potential can only be fully achieved if high quality grass is continually offered to, and efficiently grazed by the herd. Each grazing season will inevitably involve challenging periods, but through the use of GrassCheck and the growth information from across Northern Ireland, informed and timely decisions can be made by grassland managers to ensure the risks associated with surpluses and/or shortages can be minimised.
Andrew Dale, AFBI, Hillsborough and David Mackey College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), Greenmount Campus