Forage Focus: February 2015

Exploring the world of high quality forage production and utilisation with specialist agricultural merchant Morton’s

The Ulster Grassland Society held its annual conference recently, bringing together a number of expert speakers who shared useful insights and practical advice with those attending.

The overall message focused on how the local farming industry must seek to exploit our grass yield advantage.   Compared with other parts of Europe where grass production faces challenges in the form of pests, droughts, diseases or winter damage; our climate is ideal for producing sustainable and reliable grass growth all year round. 

Grass is very competitive compared to other feeds, particularly whenever farms are utilising the majority of what’s available to them, and therefore good grass management can make a huge impact on farm profitability.  Speaker Dr Michael O’Donovan, who heads up the Animal & Grassland Research and Innovation Centre in Moorepark, Co. Cork, spoke about how they are working closely with farmers across the Republic of Ireland to harness the potential of grazing systems to achieve greater profitability.  The goals are ambitious – aiming to achieve a 50% expansion of production from grassland by 2050, increasing stocking rates from 1.8 à 2.5 cows/ha and grass growth from 9t DM/ha à 12-16t DM/ha through utilising 90% home grown feed.

The premise of the system is simple – dairy cows grazing high quality grass to achieve high levels of performance.    The focus is on the cow fitting the system, not the other way round.   The system is suited to a high fertility, compact calving easy care dairy cow, rather than a larger more sensitive breed which is less hardy and resilient. 

Key points made by Dr O’Donovan included the importance of spring grazing, carrying out regular soil sampling and incorporating good grass management practices into the farm culture.  Spring grazing research shows that spring grass remains the highest quality feed post calving – so clearly it makes sense to optimise it.  Overgrazing must be avoided as there is no benefit to grazing beyond 3.5cm.  The ‘10 to 4’ rule is a good one to follow – allow your animals to graze from 10cm down to 4cm, any more than this can negatively impact on total DM production.  The rationale for early grazing to promote further growth is clear when you consider that the greatest percentage of the total grass yield will come from the third leaf. Typically 25% of the yield comes from the first leaf, 30% from the 2nd leaf and 40% from the third.

Dr O’Donovan also highlighted the recently launched Irish Pasture Profit Index (PPI) as a useful tool for farmers. The PPI assigns an economic value to important grass traits, enabling farmers to look at the full picture before selecting a suitable variety. The Aber range of grasses bred by Morton’s IBERS ranks highly, with AberGain topping the list at €234/hectare.  AberChoice and AberMagic also feature in the top five. Whilst we don’t currently have an equivalent list for Northern Ireland or GB, it is a useful list to review in conjunction with our own Recommended List given its focus on total economic merit.

As milk price is subject to a range of external factors, it makes economic sense to control what you can in an effort to cope with price volatility.  All too often farmers can lose focus on costs whenever milk prices are good, spending more on concentrate and failing to utilise a low cost resource to their advantage.   The evidence shows that a consistent approach to making the most of your forage is the most sustainable way to keep the cost of production down.  Teagasc experts believe that the future health of the Irish and Northern Irish dairy industry is very much dependent on maximising milk from grazing, and that the outlook for well managed dairy systems is excellent.  There is a great opportunity for the local dairy industry to work together to fully exploit our grass yield advantage and safeguard from further price volatility, enabling us to become more competitive on both an individual farm level and on a global playing field.  

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