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The vital role of forage in any ruminant production system

The 2016 Ulster Grassland Society (UGS) Conference, held in Antrim last week, strongly emphasised the importance of forage and the vital role it has to play in any ruminant production system.

Other than a significant improvement in farm gate prices, it is clear that there is no silver bullet for improving livestock returns.  Given that prices are subject to global forces which are beyond our control, it makes sense to improve the things we can control, such as maximising production from forage.

Small improvements in how we carry out operations can have a positive impact on returns, or at the very least, ensure we reduce losses. Michael Murphy, a progressive dairy farmer from Cork who spoke at the UGS, advised that if grazed grass has a cost value of 1, then silage can be considered to have a value of 2.5-3, and concentrate a value of 5-6. We are all aware that forage as grazed grass and silage (grass, wholecrop cereals and maize) are the lowest cost part of the feed and we need to maximise the use of these in the animal diets.

The starting point for growing good quality forage is good quality soil.  You must develop a good understanding of your soil – carrying out soil analysis so that you can use utilise your slurry and farmyard manure to best effect and reduce the amount of inorganic fertiliser which must be added, or target the fertiliser which is required more effectively. Basic steps such as improving the pH of the soil has an immediate effect on the utilisation of both the slurry and inorganic fertiliser applied and in turn the level of grass grown or silage produced. Moving the pH from 5.5 to 6.0 improves nitrogen efficiency from 77to 89%, phosphate from 48 to 52%, and potash from 77 to 100%. Remember the target pH for grass is 6.3-6.5 and for cereals 6.5 +. For every 1000 gallons of slurry applied it requires approximately 20 kgs of lime to neutralise the acidity effect of the slurry and for every 1kg of urea applied, approximately 3.6kgs of lime.

Looking around the countryside grass growth has been exceptional due to the mild winter. We all know that if the weather turns very cold this can soon change. This early grass growth offers the opportunity to turn the cows out early or take an early cut of silage. However, in practice it is not always that simple. Turning out stock too early can damage swards which will have impact negatively on the rest of the season. Try putting stock out for a few hours a day to begin with, or using lighter stock or sheep if available to keep swards under control, preferably not letting them reach more than 10cms of cover. Holding back on nitrogen fertiliser application may slow growth, however, bear in mind we have had a very wet winter and soil nutrient levels may be lower than normal.  With application of slurry to silage fields with high covers, the use of a trailing shoe will help reduce contamination - which can have a serious impact on the fermentation process.

It has been announced that a useful pesticide (sold as Cyren or Dursban) for controlling leatherjackets in grass and cereal is due to be withdrawn from sale on 1st March this year.  As yet, there appears to be no date agreed for a ‘use up’ period on farm.  This leaves only cultural control methods which have limited effect.   


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